When the controversial documentary “The Fire Next Time” was unveiled to a large crowd at Kalispell’s Liberty Theatre three years ago, filmmaker Patrice O’Neill posed a question to the people of Flathead Valley: Will the “last best place in America” become “the next worst flashpoint in the country’s running battle between the forces of economic development, environmental activism, and anti-government extremism?”
The consensus between O’Neill and local officials today is a decided “no.”
On Dec. 6, the Flathead County Library hosted a public showing of the film, Kalispell’s second such presentation and the first since October 2004. The film, O’Neill said, seeks to encourage healthy civil dialogue, instead of rhetoric and violence, to help solve the valley’s heated issues, especially those concerning growth and the environment. Citing Flathead on the Move, an informal organization that holds community meetings in an effort to improve civil dialogue and discourse, County Commissioner Gary Hall said the movie is achieving its goals.
After the showing, crowd members, including people who appeared in the movie, stayed for a group discussion led by Flathead on the Move’s Ned Cooney.
“The reason why we’re sitting here talking,” Hall, who plays a major role in the film, said, “is all a result of this movie.”
O’Neill originally came to the Flathead in 2002 with an organization called the Working Group – which is committed to stopping intolerance and violence in local communities – after receiving a call from Brenda Kitterman, an ex-police officer concerned with the increasing hostility in the valley, particularly regarding a militia group called Project 7, which crumbled after its leader David Burgert was arrested following reports of the group’s plans to assassinate local law enforcement officials. O’Neill, who had completed a documentary called “Not in Our Town” about white supremacy in Billings, thought she was filming a documentary on Project 7 until she saw that the divisiveness surrounding environmental and growth issues ran much deeper in the Flathead.
She thought something had to be done before the tension worsened.
“I like the fire analogy,” she said. “You smell the smoke and ignore it until it’s too late, then you have deep, deep troubles.”
Hall, O’Neill and Kalispell Mayor Pam Kennedy agree that through the work of Flathead on the Move and others, the Flathead community has become far better at discussing heated issues even if the issues themselves are still the same: rapid growth and development, anti-environmentalists versus environmentalists and the declining timber industry. Kennedy said she hasn’t seen anyone storm out of a public meeting since the movie’s release, a welcome absence.
Others involved in the movie, however, say very little has been accomplished since the movie was made, including Scott Daumiller, a millworker for the Stoltze Land and Lumber Company. Daumiller is a central figure in the film, appearing as a representative for the Flathead’s anti-environmentalist movement.
“I sure don’t feel like we’ve gained anything from it,” Daumiller said.
Daumiller agrees, to a degree, that the film has helped stimulate positive civil dialogue in the Flathead, though he doesn’t think it has made any tangible contributions to the ongoing struggle between environmentalists and timber industry advocates. The timber industry is dying and Daumiller still believes it’s largely the fault of environmentalists.
“The environmentalists in the movie,” he said, “I have no more respect for, and probably less, than I did before the movie.”
He mentioned his logging philosophy to emphasize that, contrary to what he said environmentalists believe, he cares about the valley’s natural habitat: “If you don’t pull the carrots out of the ground, they’re going to rot.”
Daumiller says because of his anti-environmentalist beliefs, he has received numerous threats over the years. He writes frequent letters to the editor, he said, and has not given up his fight to save the industry of his livelihood, though he holds little faith for his employer Stoltze in particular. He cites environmental lawsuits as the main reason.
The documentary, Daumiller said, is well-intentioned and raises valid points, but by blending too many issues into a short movie, he said people get confused. For example, he said a lot of people grouped him with Project 7 after seeing the movie.
“They thought I was some evil maniac with a chainsaw,” Daumiller said. “But I do have compassion and I care for the forest.”
Over at KGEZ The Edge, John Stokes continues his anti-environmentalist campaign even as he says the environmentalists now have a much stronger foothold in the area. Stokes plays a prominent role in the film. By utilizing his radio talk show, he is portrayed in the movie as both a catalyst and mouthpiece for the anti-environmentalist movement.
Stokes did not attend the showing and dismisses the movie altogether as “total biased propaganda.” He contends that O’Neill approached him “under false pretense,” telling him that the movie was about forest fires.
“The other issue I have is that they imply I’m a murderer in (the movie),” Stokes said. “All it does is generate death threats for me.”
Stokes said he never signed a release to appear in the film, adding that he might pursue legal action. O’Neill, however, said Stokes signed a release. Furthermore, she said, she did not mislead people as Stokes argues into thinking the movie was strictly about forest fires.
“I was very, very clear with everybody,” she said.
Some locals have expressed concern over the documentary. Among the concerns were that the film misrepresented the Flathead, exaggerated local problems and brought negative attention to the valley that would discourage newcomers and disrupt the area’s economy. Kennedy said she understands the concerns and said that any time an outsider portrays a community, there’s bound to be a degree of controversy.
“I think the director of the Working Group did a good job of working with community,” Kennedy said, “and trying to portray the issues that were relevant at the time as accurately as she could.”
Kennedy said the film has had no negative influence on the economy: People are moving to the Flathead at a high rate and tourism is strong. Along with Flathead on the Move, Kennedy also points to Woodland Park’s Community Spirit Monument, unveiled the same day as the Dec. 6 showing. Construction on the monument began largely as a result of the film, Kennedy said.
Kitterman, the ex-cop who helped prompt the film, said she’s pleased with how Flathead is progressing in its willingness to address, civilly, the heated issues that will shape Flathead’s future. One sign of that progress on a personal level, she said, is that she hasn’t received a death threat in a long time.
“We’ve made amazing, amazing progress,” Kitterman said, “but we still have a long way to go.”
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