'No Man's Land': Film Review | Tribeca 2017

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
Harrowing and illuminating.

David Byars' documentary provides a fly-on-the-wall account of the 2016 occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

You literally feel the bullets fly in David Byars’ documentary about the 41-day occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 2016 by right-wingers opposed to the federal government. The filmmaker embedded with the militants, gained their trust and took full advantage of this access to make No Man’s Land a vivid depiction of events that have become emblematic of the current political divide. The film, whose producers include Morgan Spurlock, recently received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Byars, long fascinated by the anti-government activities of the Bundy family, headed to Oregon when he heard they were spearheading a takeover of the wildlife refuge. Led by Ammon Bundy, whose father Cliven had fought the government two years earlier over grazing rights, the occupiers espoused an anti-federal government philosophy that they considered the highest form of patriotism. “This is Armageddon now,” one of them declares, in a typical example of the group’s penchant for over-the-top dramatics.

Federal agents let the situation simmer for several weeks, showing a restraint most probably borne of previous encounters that had gone horribly, violently wrong. Not surprisingly, the events took on a sideshow atmosphere. The protestors, surrounded by American flags, seemed to be having a great time, and none more so than Bundy, who frequently held court for the media.

“It’s the Ammon Bundy Show,” one journalist bitterly comments. Meanwhile, the nearby community was sharply divided, with many of its citizens upset over the disruption, which included the police closing the local high school and turning it into a command center.

The filmmaker’s proximity to the protestors yield some remarkable moments. One of the group’s leaders, for example, becomes friendly with an FBI negotiator who, he discovers, is a fellow military vet. Not that this changes the overall dynamics. “Don’t be afraid to shoot the FBI, because they’re not the good guys in this case,” one of them instructs.

The events culminated with a dramatic chase and shootout in which one of the militants was shot and killed on camera. The film includes harrowing footage taken during the shootout.

Byars, who scrupulously avoids editorial commentary and lets the militants speak for themselves, provides a far more intimate account of the events than traditional news media. The downside is that the doc sometimes lacks the clarity and explication that would have been helpful for viewers less familiar with what happened. But that’s a small cavil for this intensely visceral documentary which shows just how far some fringe segments of the population are willing to go to stand up for their beliefs.

Production companies: Warrior Poets, Topic, Impact Partners
Director-director of photography: David Byars
Producers: David Byars, Morgan Spurlock, Jeremy Chilnick, David Holbrooke, Davide Osit, Rachel Traub, Stash Wislocki
Executive producers: Thom Beers, Michael Bloom, Dan Cogan, Adam Pincus
Editor: David Osit
Music: LOW
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)

80 minutes