In the early hours of January 2, 2016, a group of white men carrying semiautomatic weapons seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a bird sanctuary in rural Southeastern Oregon. For 41 days, they refused to leave until the federal government handed over the 187,757 acres of protected desert scrub and sagebrush lowlands to the people.
They never got their wish. Instead, 26 people were arrested on federal conspiracy charges and one man was shot and killed by police.
The Malheur occupation is the subject of a new documentary called No Man’s Land, directed by David Byars and produced by Morgan Spurlock, of Super Size Me fame. The film, with the aid of an organ-shaking soundtrack by Low, captures the beautiful emptiness of the rural West and offers a snapshot of the anger felt by members of the “Patriot” movement toward the federal government.
While naysayers around the world were quick to call the white male occupiers “Y’all Qaeda” and “Vanilla ISIS,” No Man’s Land takes great lengths to try to understand why the occupiers’ beef with the feds became so great that they were forced to take a “hard stand.” Byars uses journalists Linda Tirado, Les Zaitz and Hal Herring as voices of reason to explain what was happening on the ground at Malheur.
The occupiers were people who felt wronged by the government. “Whenever your livelihood is put into jeopardy,” Herring explains in the film, “there’s anger there.”
No Man’s Land documents the strange circus of under-dressed reporters who flew in from around the world, slipping and sliding on the ice behind the occupation’s leader, Ammon Bundy, as they clutched their microphones and cameras. Scenes touch on the anger and fear felt by locals over the occupation. The film also gets into the 2014 standoff on the Bundy family’s Nevada ranch, where hundreds of armed “Patriots” kept Bureau of Land Management agents from seizing Bundy cattle, which had been illegally grazing on federal land for two decades.
But in the end, No Man’s Land is a hollow sketch of one of the most dangerous and growing extremist movements in America today—a film that slips and slides like those fly-in reporters because it fails to tell the full story of the occupation, the motivations of the occupiers, and the missteps taken by the government during the incident.
The filmmakers, like many others, were fooled by Ammon Bundy’s cowboy hat and boots. The film doesn’t tell you that he isn’t a rancher, but an Idaho car fleet owner who kept his cowboy costume in his closet. It never touches on the fact that his brother Ryan has a history of violent behavior and has made multiple runs for public office as a Constitution Party candidate.
The film doesn’t get into the crimes of Dwight and Steven Hammond—Oregon ranchers who were sent to prison for setting fires on federal land, released and hauled back to prison to serve out mandatory minimum sentences. The Bundys co-opted a peaceful protest in Burns, Oregon over the Hammonds’ imprisonment, and turned it into an armed occupation.
The film’s most egregious sin, though, is handing the mic to occupier Jon Ritzheimer, whom viewers will see as a jaded veteran standing up for unheard rural people. They’re never told about Ritzheimer’s rallies outside mosques around the country, where he screamed at Muslims and wore T-shirts that read “Fuck Islam.” We hear from occupier Blaine Cooper, too, but we aren’t shown the videos of him wrapping a Quran in bacon, lighting it on fire and shooting it with arrows. The film neglects to call them what they are: racists.
No Man’s Land also fails to fully describe the government’s role in the occupation. One scene in the film shows a firearms training course being taught on the refuge grounds. For gun-fearing liberals, this is a terrifying portrait of kitted-up, pissed off Americans readying to fight the government. But here’s what the film doesn’t tell you: That guy barking orders and leading the training? He was a government informant named Fabio Minoggio who was sent to the refuge by the feds. Minoggio was one of a dozen informants at the refuge acting in various roles.
In some ways, No Man’s Land makes ranchers standing up for a fading lifestyle seem like something new, but it’s not. In the 1970s and 80s it was called the Sagebrush Rebellion. A 1979 Newsweek cover that read “Get off our backs, Uncle Sam” discussed ranchers having to share land use decisions with environmentalists and outdoor recreationists. But unlike those ranchers 30 years ago, the Bundy Brothers (again, not ranchers) have congealed their movement with other right-wing extremists groups: militiamen, sovereign citizens and white supremacists.
But you don’t get any of that in No Man’s Land.
In the end, viewers hear little of how the Bundy brothers and other leaders of the Malheur occupation were acquitted of all charges by a jury in Oregon. Viewers aren’t told that it is actually the most minor players in the occupation who face prison time.
The Bundys are in jail in Nevada right now, awaiting trial for the Bundy Ranch standoff. With their trial date looming this month, they’ve attracted the attention of Washington insider Roger Stone, who is making continued pleas for President Trump to pardon the Bundys. There’s mounting evidence that right now, more than ever, the crackpot theories of the Bundys are reaching the ears of the crackpot-in-chief: In mid-September, a leaked Department of the Interior memo saw Secretary Ryan Zinke pushing for Gold Butte National Monument to be scaled back in size, a cause for which the Bundys have advocated.
If the Bundys do go to trial and are acquitted, they’ll be free men—angry over nearly two years spent in jail, emboldened by the Patriot supporters that have bought into their political point of view.
While esteemed voices like Zaitz’s and Herring’s lend much-needed skepticism to the film, the end result doesn’t dive into the full portrait of what happened at Malheur. The subjects in No Man’s Land say they felt unheard—and the filmmakers, unlike those who poked fun, earnestly listened to what they had to say.
But the filmmakers turned a blind eye to the history of the West and to the Patriot’s devotion to a fictional version of America—a place that, they feel, was once a greater land than it is now. It glosses over how the Patriot movement has become a catch-all for dangerous, hate-fueled fringe groups.
And it neglects to tap into the true desperation it must take for someone to show up to an iced-over bird refuge in a literal no-man’s land, just to find fellowship with other people who are as scared of going extinct as you are.