In search of the cowboy mystique
Film festival screens locally produced ‘Cowboy Way’
Patrick Neely, Katie Holmdahl and Christina Knickerbocker, from left, pose on the steps of the Strater in period wear on Tuesday. The three FLC students, along with classmate Kenneth Salomon "Fish," made a documentary on cowboy culture called "Cowboy Way." For the film, they interviewed participants in the annual Cowboy Gathering. Todd Newcomer.

by Missy Votel

In the world of documentaries, filmmakers often need look no further than the proverbial end of their lenses for inspiration.

Such was the case for four Fort Lewis College students who hit upon Durango's annual Cowboy Gathering as fodder for a documentary filmmaking class.

"A lot of times when doing documentaries, filmmakers try to cover something that's really deep or profound," said Christina Knickerbocker, who co-directed the film, "Cowboy Way," with classmate Katie Holmdahl. "When we were looking for a topic, I said, , we live in Durango. There's got to be something right here that we can do a film on.'"

As luck would have it, Durango's annual gathering of cowboy poets and performers was taking place. Knickerbocker and Holmdahl, along with classmates Kenneth Salomon "Fish" and Patrick Neely, descended upon the gathering with hopes of getting to the heart of the cowboy mystique.

"The cowboy is such a part of Durango's history, yet all we see anymore are the Hollywood stereotypes," said Holmdahl. "Basically, we set out trying to answer the question, 'What is a cowboy?'"

In search of this answer, the students broke into pairs and interviewed the event participants, asking them why they attended the gathering and what their definition of the "cowboy way" was. Knickerbocker said the gathering proved to be a veritable treasure trove of characters.

"It was a gold mine as far as finding people with heart," she said. "We met some really interesting people."

In so doing, the students also discovered that all cowboys are not cut from the same rawhide. As a result, Holmdahl said the students decided to include several subjects - a "mosaic of characters" - in order to provide a wider scope.

"When you do a documentary, you tend to follow the same central character," she said. "But we just wanted to show the whole culture of cowboy gatherings and the complexity of the people who attend them because they're all so different."

In addition to conducting interviews at the gathering, the students also visited local ranchers for a sample of what the real cowboy lifestyle entails. She said the results will likely contradict images of John Wayne and Old West gunfights conjured up in mainstream culture.

"I think we pretty much got away from the stereotype of a Hollywood cowboy," she said. "Basically, what we found is, if you work on a ranch, can rope a steer and ride a horse every day, then you're a cowboy."

"I think we pretty much got away from the stereotype of a Hollywood cowboy," she said. "Basically, what we found is, if you work on a ranch, can rope a steer and ride a horse every day, then you're a cowboy."

In addition to this, the students stumbled upon another discovery, namely that the cowboy way of life is an endangered one - not only in reality but among public perception.

"The working cowboy has very much disappeared from the mainstream perception," said Holmdahl.

Nevertheless, the students said the subjects of the film were more than willing to talk in the interest of preserving what little there is left of their dying breed.

"The response was great. They were so happy to work with us," said Holmdahl. "They just love the cowboy culture and want to share it with everyone."

And while the interview aspect of the filmmaking went off without a hitch, the students said there were a few ruts in the trail along the way.

"I don't have time to tell you how many things just didn't work out," said Knickerbocker, a former financial analyst turned film major.

For starters, the crew set out to produce an hour-long, "PBS style" documentary. However, thanks to camera malfunctions and other glitches, a lot of footage was lost, resulting in a 16-minute film, including credits. Furthermore, being students, the film had no budget, meaning they had to do everything themselves, putting in more than 800 hours, combined.

Festival features several FLC student films

A total of four films, comprising the work of 10 Fort Lewis College students, will be screened at the Durango Film Festival, which starts this Friday.

Three of the films were the result of a course last fall taught by Kurt Lancaster, “English 417 Media Theory: The Documentary.” The class resulted in five student-made films, of which three were invited to be a part of the Film Festival. A fourth student film, originally made for the college's 2004 Halloween art show, also will be screened.

“Having a film accepted for screening at a festival is equivalent to having an essay or work of fiction published in a literary journal or magazine,” said Lancaster, assistant professor of English. “I sat on a screening committee for the 2005 Durango Film Festival, so I know how competitive even small festivals like Durango's festival, are.”

The films include:

-“Upward Mobility” – A 10-minute film by Dan Steaves that follows the story of Pete Davis, a one-armed rock climber   from Durango, as he tackles an “on-sight,” or successful first attempt with no falls, on Animas Mountain.

-“Cowboy Way” – A 16-minute film by Christina Knickerbocker, Katie Holmdahl, Pat Neely and Kenneth Solomon “Fish” that gets   to the heart of cowboy culture by revealing its myths and realities via interviews at the Cowboy Gathering as well as interviews with local cowboys and cowgirls.

-“Poor Man's Bread” – A 12-minute film by recent graduates Libbi Miller, Vanessa Bohaty and Michael Gustafson and current student Caitlin Dent on the life and views of Jimmy Lee Alexander, a local homeless man.

-“Untitled Compilation” – A three-minute film by student Grant Pullman featuring a montage of dark images, chosen for their spooky qualities in conjunction with a Halloween art show.

In addition to the four student films, “Folding Paper Cranes,” Lancaster's 24-minute documentary on Professor of English Emeritus Leonard “Red” Bird, will also show at the festival.

For a complete listing of film times, please see our Film Festival Schedule insert in the center of the paper.

Nonetheless, Knickerbocker said it was a valuable and rewarding experience.

"It was insane, but we really had a great time," she said. "And right now, we're in the film fest, so it was all worthwhile."

But perhaps more than getting the film into the festival, the students said their greatest achievement was producing something that sheds light on a little piece of Durango's slowly disappearing heritage, which, in essence, is part of us all.

"Durango's changing so much, and a lot of people aren't in touch with its history," said Holmdahl. "To me, history is part of your identity. If you want to understand Durango, you've got to look at its history."

The cowboy as vegetarian

Offering a look at the flip side of the world of cattle ranching is “Peaceable Kingdom,” a documentary featuring a fourth generation cattleman's journey from feedlot owner to impassioned animal advocate. Following the story of Howard Lyman, co-defendant in the now infamous Oprah Winfrey lawsuit, the 70-minute film highlights the struggles of people such as Lyman who have come to a point in their lives where they must follow their conscience, even if it means giving up their livelihood, community and lifestyle.

At the core of “Peaceable Kingdom” are the riveting accounts of farmers who have had a change of heart about the animals that once formed the basis of their lives. Most notable is Lyman, who turned his small organic farm into a massive feedlot operation. Although successful, he experienced an epiphany during a health crisis. From then on, he resolved to devote his life to undoing the damage done by his agribusiness empire and righting inhumane livestock practices. However, being entrenched in ranching his entire life, it was a decision he did not arrive at easily.

“How was I gonna go to my wife and say, maybe what we oughta do is get out of this business?” he said. “How was I going to go and talk to my friends about it when ever one of them was involved in doing exactly what I was doing? There was no support mechanism, even if I went to my minister.”

Lyman wrote a book on his experience, Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth From the Cattle Rancher Who Won't Eat Meat . In 1996, the Texas Cattlemen brought an unsuccessful lawsuit against Lyman and Oprah Winfrey for remarks he made on her show about mad cow disease that led Winfrey to exclaim, “It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger.”

Filmmakers James LaVeck and Jenny Stein premiered their film at Lincoln Center in Manhattan last year, and it has been selling out theatres ever since. In October, Peaceable Kingdom received the Ojai Film Festival theme award for “enriching the human spirit through film.” Radio commentator Paul Harvey praised “Peaceable Kingdom” on his nationally broadcast show and gave away several hundred copies to his listeners.

“'Peaceable Kingdom' is striking a chord,” said LaVeck, “because it is about everyday people reclaiming their dignity and their innocence by challenging a blatant injustice.”

For a complete listing of film times, please see our Film Festival Schedule insert in the center of the paper.

– Missy Votel





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