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Deep West documents ranch life

After a wild September rain storm, the night calmed, and at Satchel’s cafe in downtown Boise, just a block from the State Capitol, a small crowd of us from the annual conference of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies gathered outside surrounded by faux adobe walls for a rare treat. With a real campfire blazing in a steel fire pit and peregrine falcons making themselves at home in the skyscraper overhead, and Hal Cannon projected short videos that ranching men and women have made about their lives.

“It’s sort of an extension of cowboy poetry,” he said. Ordinary people who once expressed themselves with the tools they had, paper and pencil and voices, now have access to video cameras and i-movie software.

Hal is the founding director of the Western Folklife Center, which is best known for its annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.

The movies were made as part of the Center’s Deep West initiative. Some of the movies were quite serious, including one woman’s meditation on generations of family on the land and changes that are now occurring and another’s video letter to a son in Iraq. Others were humorous, such as the carefully documented heroic tale of a wife shoveling the tractor out to go rescue her husband who was stuck on a remote road after a snow storm, or the “natural history” of calves raised without mothers.

The crowd loved them and wanted more. It can be energizing and inspiring to hear the voices of real people--people you would like for friends and neighbors--talking about their lives, including the humor, the challenges, the joy, and, here and there, the profundity.

This is a quiet kind of work, relying heavily on voice over still images from photo albums and digital cameras. These pioneering efforts included some images that were blurry and overexposed. Nobody minded. It’s first-rate work, written with a fine sense of story and an even finer sense of what matters.

And it’s important work, putting powerful tools in the hands of ordinary people, letting them shape the narrative environment that in turn shapes us and our children. In recent decades we may have allowed commercial storytellers a bit too much influence in our lives, but Hal Cannon and others like him show us how good we can be at reminding ourselves of who we really want to be, and of who we really are.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 09/11 at 10:52 PM






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