For residents of the Pacific Northwest, the 2016 Malheur Refuge takeover by so-called patriot militants was a torturous affair that played out in slow motion. Lasting 41 days, the occupation in Oregon made media stars of Ammon and Ryan Bundy and a martyr of Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, who was shot and killed by authorities. And while we heard occasional sound bites from the primary players about how their grazing land was being stolen by the government, little was known about what went on inside the refuge—until David Byars’ fly-on-the-wall documentary No Man’s Land.
By embedding himself with the Malheur militants during the takeover, Byars presents rare insight into the group’s enthusiastic hatred of the government, fears, and lack of preparedness. Various armed right-wingers speak candidly about their reasons for the takeover, without a single interruption from Byars—who wisely knows they’ll furnish enough rope to hang themselves.
Gorgeous, stark scenery combined with images of flag-bearing horsemen with rifles could make No Man’s Land a very effective horror documentary, but incisive commentary supplied by experts provides the true context: This is a story of white American privilege. The Malheur militants were a group of racist cowboy fantasists who cried for democracy—as long as they could profit from it.
They championed the disenfranchised even as they drove expensive trucks and carried state-of-the-art assault rifles. They preached peace as they threatened federal officials and ramped up tension to the point that a death was inevitable. These were white men who assumed (correctly) they could take over a federal installation with weapons, and walk away with few consequences—the very essence of privilege.
No Man’s Land is a shocking, intense, and infuriating must-watch for those who lived through it. It shines a harsh light on the root causes of our current political climate: American narcissism and entitlement.
No Man's Land plays Tues Sept 26 at 7 pm, as part of Northwest Film Forum's Local Sightings festival.