In what may be the most unusual art contest you’ve never heard of, dozens of waterfowl painters compete annually for the distinction of creating the original artwork featured on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s annual “duck stamp,” which is affixed to hunting licenses and entry passes providing access to the National Wildlife Refuge system. Although the federal government provides no prize money, winning artists can significantly profit from selling the rights to their work, lending the stamp its “million dollar” moniker.
In his fascinating and lively documentary, Brian Golden Davis captures the curious mania that drives independent artists nationwide to spend a year or more creating duck art for the competition. Following its Slamdance premiere, The Million Dollar Duck made its nest with Discovery’s Animal Planet for broadcast, while Lionsgate will handle theatrical/VOD release in North America and the U.K.
Before Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon made headlines as a holdout for armed militants, it was best-known for great duck, goose and pheasant hunting, along with fishing and bird-watching opportunities, as one in a network of more than 550 federal wildlife sanctuaries administered by the Department of the Interior to protect the nation’s fish, wildlife and plants. Malheur and the other refuges in the network receive funds from the sale of duck stamps created in response to an annual open contest initiated in 1949, currently the only federally administered, juried art competition in the nation. It’s not often that environmental conservationists and hunters can see eye-to-eye, but with 98 percent of duck stamp revenue allocated to the refuge system, it’s clear that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s multi-use policy, making public lands available for a variety of recreational activities, also protects millions of acres of critical habitat.
Basing his film on Martin J. Smith’s nonfiction book The Wild Duck Chase, Davis follows a half-dozen contestants from across the country as they prepare their artwork for the 2013 competition. Among the more notable painters profiled is Robert Hautman from the so-called “duck dynasty” of three brothers who have collectively won 10 times. Minneapolis’ Rob McBroom is something of an outsider artist in a field of representational traditionalists, employing a variety of media and abstract designs in his paintings. Adam Grimm took first place years ago as a young man; now middle-aged, he’s chasing another win to help support his growing family. After years of competition, many of these artists know each other personally and their opinionated attitudes lend the film a fair amount of its unassuming, down-to-earth humor.
Davis tracks the painters both in the studio and into the field, where they observe or photograph flocks of ducks from elaborate blinds or nearby lakeshores. He also seeks out the Fish and Wildlife Service officials who good-naturedly administer the program for the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, as it’s formally known, and examines a variety of funding and conservation issues that pose threats to the protection of the refuge system, while intercutting plenty of spectacular wildlife photography to emphasize key points. The final third, consisting of the contests’ live-judged elimination rounds, develops into a tense showdown between two of the film’s most ardent artists.
Director of photography Christian Bruno and editor Derek Boonstra offer attractively assembled portrayals of the film’s subjects, both human and avian. In addition to an extensive Kickstarter campaign, The Million Dollar Duck was also funded in part by international hunting and conservation organization Ducks Unlimited.
Venue: Slamdance Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Production company: DocRiot
Director: Brian Golden Davis
Executive producers: Mark Jonathan Harris, Richard Prager
Director of photography: Christian Bruno
Editor: Derek Boonstra
Music: Ceiri Torjussen, Wenalt Music
Not rated, 72 minutes