Montana Divided: A Climate Change Story

Michael: Please tell us who you are

Justin: Hi. My name is Justin Davey and I’m a British-Irish-American independent filmmaker.

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Filming in Glacier National Park near Gunsight Lake, MT. Photo by Sam Harris

Michael: You recently released an independent documentary called “Montana Divided: a Climate Change Story” could you please describe what this film is about?

Justin: This film came from an idea I had at the UN Climate Change conference in Bonn, Germany in May, 2017. It was co-created with climate change expert Sam Harris.

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Forced a stranger to take our picture, Glacier National Park

The film focuses on the conversation around climate change in Montana, what climatic changes are being observed and what might be possible for the state in terms of policy and investment.

Michael: Why is Montana an important place to tell a story about Climate Change?

Justin: The issue of climate change denialism strikes at the heart of a problem in the US at the moment, which is intellectual dishonesty. In my opinion, it is difficult to solve problems if you don’t admit the causes. Politicians have always lied to gain power but the citizenry now appear less able to determine fact from falsehood due to misinformation campaigns. I wanted to explore that in relation to climate change in a place that is revered, loved and Republican. In particular, their glaciers are melting right in front of their eyes, so climate change is happening (rapidly, geologically speaking) and I was curious to understand how they explain that fact.

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Sunrise, Badlands National Park, South Dakota. Photo by Sam Harris

Michael: Talk about your connection with Montana…

Justin: For years, Montana lived in my imagination as this wild, romanticized land of free pioneers and homesteaders, so I wanted to discover that truth and meet some Montanans. Secondly, because of contemporary divisions in American society and the difficulty they pose for big societal challenges, I wanted the state to be heavily Republican. I wanted to meet them on their turf. You never know a place until you sleep there, smell the air, drink the water, drive the roads, climb the hills, get drunk in their bars, offer a “hello” to strangers etc. So gaining an understanding of the Montanan culture and making new connections was part of why I made this film.

When Sam and I left Montana we were on a palpable high from the experiences we had and the people we met. I think it changed both of us for the better and we both gained a huge respect and admiration for the people who live there.

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On the ranch with Shirle Wempner and Tom English. Photo by Sam Harris

Researching the state’s history, I learned about the Irish settlers and the impressive life of Marcus Daly, an immigrant from County Cavan, who essentially built Montana in the late 1800s. His Anaconda Copper Mining Company employed half the state’s residents at one point and provided most of the copper for Thomas Edison to electrify America.

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Carrying too much gear into Glacier National Park. Photo by Sam Harris

The Native American history also intrigued me but I learned of it in Montana, where I got the impression the conflict between communities felt more current than historical to some.

Lastly, the state does have a relatively high suicide rate (see WSJ video: Deaths of Despair). Perhaps this is due to economic challenges, drugs, social isolation or bullying online. I don’t know. I just want people to see how lucky they are to be in Montana and that they matter.

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Quick beer in a dive bar. Rainbo Club, Chicago, IL

Michael: What were your influences in making this film?

Justin: When America elected Trump, there was a lot of tribalism and xenophobia in the ether. I was in Marrakech for COP22, and while it is old news to those at the UN, it was powerful to see the global mélange of people attempting to work together. There’s a certain electricity in the air when all the peoples of the world meet and I felt at home in that environment. That experience inspired me to dream bigger and use film in a new way. So if I hadn’t started working with UN Climate Change in 2016, I don’t think I would have felt the urgency to make this film.

In terms of actual filmic influence, I’m quite swayed by traditional romanticism of stories about hardship, family, love and redemption. As someone born in the 80s, I know it is clichéd but my idea of Montana was shaped by classic 90s films, e.g. A River Runs Through It, Legends of the Fall. As I researched further, I saw the landscape in many others – The Shining (also: see Blade Runner ending), The River Wild, and more recently The Revenant. So I had this constructed vision of Montana and a rich filming history drawing me in saying, “whatever happens, going to Montana is a good idea.” (Also, Sweetgrass is a 2009 documentary I’ve been meaning to watch)

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“Did you bring those extra batteries?” Glacier National Park, MT. Photo by Sam Harris

In terms of documentary filmmakers – Adam Curtis, Werner Herzog, Ken Burns, Michael Moore, Louis Theroux…I’m not sure they influenced my style but their work inspired me before this project ever came up.

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Realizing we had hiked into heaven and didn’t want to leave. Glacier National Park, MT. Photo by Sam Harris

Michael: Describe the creation process of this documentary

Justin: Before filming, Sam and I didn’t know one other very well. We were a bit nervous we’d be spending 21 days together driving 7000 miles, eating, sleeping, camping and of course, filming 24 hours/day. Fortunately, after the first day driving 14 hours to Chicago, she seemed accustomed to my odd sense of humour and we got on quite well.

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Sam in her element after we saw a huge moose while I panicked thinking it was a bear. Glacier National Park, MT.

Sam had set up several meetings with professors/experts. We had our plan but that schedule was thrown out the car window the day we arrived. A Native American tribal government agreed to an on-camera interview and then changed their minds as I pressed record. Coal workers said they wouldn’t say anything on camera and their facial expressions said go away. There was meant to be an entire section dedicated to women’s empowerment where Sam would summit Mt Cleveland and then later Granite Peak (cheesy, I know) but since the forest fires were raging, half of Glacier was closed and we ran out of days to hike Granite, we had to scrap it. With a limited time frame, we made do with what we had.

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Sam at dawn in Badlands National Park, SD

Michael: Name the most challenging and rewarding parts of doing this film.

Justin:

The most challenging part was the edit. You come up with the idea, you assemble the parts, schedule it out, drive across the country, brave the weather, camp in the snow, sleep in filthy motels, search for good coffee, climb mountains, avoid crashing the drone, film 50 interviews or so and manage to only get one speeding ticket in 21 days. Yet the edit is the hardest part. How do you pull all the footage together? That’s the most challenging part, especially when it is just Sam and I.

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The most rewarding part was meeting all the people, feeling the sense of vulnerability and freedom one gets in the isolated pockets of Montana and gaining a new appreciation for the challenges people face and surmount in a place like that.

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Right after a huge grizzly bear charged right by us on a hike up to a glacier. Glacier National Park, MT. Photo by Sam Harris

Michael: Could you share your thoughts on the public perception of Climate Change in the State of Montana?

Justin: You’ll have to watch the film to get an answer to that question!  🙂

Michael: Please give us your plug!

Justin:

    1. Well, I just uploaded some work to my website.
    2. Links to the Montana film are here.
    3. My gram is @justinkdavey.
    4. At the moment, I’m either in San Francisco or England.
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On a ranch in Big Timber, MT. Photo by Sam Harris

Michael: What are you working on next?

Justin: With my previous experience in fiction and now having seen Montana, I’d love to raise a small amount of funding ($25-50K) to make a violent, contemporary western short film in a place like Butte or Shelby and enlist as many locals as possible. But again, that’s just a dream.

Right now I’m thinking about a tech platform (vague, I know) and a couple film ideas while looking for new collaborators. I feel a strong desire to spend more time back home in England but that is countered by wanting to head to SE Asia and spend a month filming in the jungle. Nothing wrong with another adventure!

Michael: Thanks for the interview Justin, we look forward to seeing the film on a festival screen in the near future!


justindavey

Justin Davey is a self-taught filmmaker currently in San Francisco. He has a background in tech and politics.

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