As an independent filmmaker tackling a complex and timely subject matter, you couldn’t ask for a more smooth process than David Byars experienced in making his feature directorial debut with the human, hot-button doc, No Man’s Land.
“The financing was really easy. The best part is, [Byars] had such a great subject that once we started showing people the [film], we were able to raise all the financing we needed really fast,” producer Morgan Spurlock explains. Sitting down with Byars at Deadline’s 2017 Tribeca Studio, the Oscar-nominated documentarian and producer credited Impact Partners’ Dan Cogan, Thom Beers, and the team at First Look Media for making the filmmaking process as seamless as possible.
“We were very simple, so we could just let David make the movie he wanted to make, and I think that’s a real gift as a filmmaker, to be in a position where you don’t have to worry about the financing, you don’t have to worry about the post,” Spurlock says. “We were there to help shepherd all that so he could focus on the creative, and it’s a rarefied place to get to be as a first-time filmmaker.”
Up close and personal, No Man’s Land delivers a first hand look at the patriots movement, and those individuals clashing with an intrusive federal government at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January 2016. With intimate access to individuals caught up in this impasse between disgruntled and disenfranchised citizens and government officials, the doc culminates in the arrest and acquittal of occupation leaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy, with another individual involved not making it out alive.
“The patriot movement really had come across my radar about three-and-a-half years ago, with the standoff at Bunkerville with Cliven Bundy. I’d heard the Bundys were taking it on the road and going to Recapture Canyon, and I went down there, because that was near where I was living at the time in Colorado,” Byars explains. “I drove down there with a buddy and just started filming, and I was like, ‘This is amazing. This is so compelling. This federal lands question is such a microcosm of the greater divide that we’re seeing in the country.'”
Remaining a “side burner project” for two years following Byars’ introduction to the movement, when the events at Malheur began to heat up, the documentarian knew he had to get himself to the site of the action. “I saw that it was the people who were serious. It was kind of the all-stars of the all-star game of the patriot movement, and I knew that they were creating a situation in which the federal government had to react,” he said. “I knew I needed to be there to film this thing because I knew this was going to have a beginning and an end, and when a narrative arc falls out of the sky, as a documentary filmmaker, you have to go out there and check it out.”
Byars left the refuge for a period of time to raise finishing funds for the movie, and at Sundance, he entered into conversation with Spurlock, who immediately sparked to the material. “He showed me like two minutes, five minutes of footage, and I was like, ‘We’re in. We’ll help you to do everything you need to do.’ Then he went back up to the wildlife refuge, back up to the standoff, and was there ‘til the end,” the producer says. “We feel very fortunate to get to be involved with a movie like this, because I think it’s a great example of what’s happening in our country today. It’s a microcosm of a larger conversation.”
“I think in America, we tend to reduce people to ideologies, and that’s really dehumanizing. We’ve created this situation in which you say, ‘I don’t agree with you, and since I don’t agree with you, you’re an awful person.’ I wanted to move away from that in this film,” the director told Deadline. “I could’ve made a straight-up prop piece that just skewers these people—there was certainly enough fodder for that amongst the more extreme elements there—but I wanted people to see that these are human beings, that there can be human beings that they can disagree with so profoundly, but also to recognize those peoples’ humanity.”
As relevant as the film’s topic was 15 months ago, Spurlock feels that the film has an even more pressing immediacy as it’s screened in Tribeca, a little less than six months after it became clear that Donald Trump would become the next President of the United States. “I think it will resonate even deeper now, because the divide has only gotten wider, the conflict between right or left, red or blue, is continuing to be at the forefront of conversations, and I think this film does a great job of laying bare a lot of grievances that people have, and I think it does it in a way that doesn’t point fingers,” he says. “It doesn’t assert blame, and it lets people just have this open dialogue, which I think is really missing.”
“It lets you make your own judgment,” he continues, “and for me, the best films do that.”
To watch the conversation with David Byars and Morgan Spurlock for yourself, click the video above. Upcoming screenings of the film can be found here.