Flathead Valley, Montana at Sunset.
The people of the Flathead Valley in Montana were used to thinking they live in “the last best place in America.” Kalispell, the county seat and valley’s largest town, means “prairie above the lake.” But as revealed by Patrice O’Neill’s new film, The Fire Next Time, the last best place may become the next worst flashpoint in the country’s running battle between the forces of economic development, environmental activism, and anti-government extremism.
Green swastikas were burned to protest environmental laws. A radio talk show host regularly called for the “eradication” of “green slime” while broadcasting the addresses of local environmental activists. Lug nuts were loosened on a car belonging to an anti-hate campaigner’s daughter. While loggers and mill workers were facing lost jobs and rising living costs, right-wing extremists plied them with racist and anti-government rhetoric. Most ominously — in news that flashed across the nation and even around the world — a shadowy terror group called Project 7 was discovered with a cache of arms and a hit list of local government officials, police officers and their families.
It was the unmistakably rising tension in the town that led ex-police officer Brenda Kitterman to invite The Working Group to bring its grassroots anti-hate program, Not in Our Town, to Flathead Valley. Ever since the broadcast of its 1995 film, Not in Our Town, about the response of Billings, Montana, to a rash of hate crimes, The Working Group has been helping local communities deal with intolerance and violence by holding film screenings and community discussions. When O’Neill and crew got to Kalispell, however, they realized they had landed in the midst of a conflict too complex to be comprehended, much less soothed, by a few community meetings.
The Working Group ended up staying two years, earning the trust — or at least the willingness to speak candidly on camera — of antagonists on all sides of the Flathead Valley land wars, while documenting the valley’s increasingly tense web of conflict, intimidation and public invective. From the outset, the filmmakers show they are not “strike a match” documentary makers. Far from heating up the action for dramatic effect, the filmmakers aim for the drama of a community seeking to restore its sense of kinship in the face of mounting stresses from within and without. In The Fire Next Time, they appear to have crafted the rare documentary that widens communication — with signal exceptions — between declared enemies.
The tensions roiling the Flathead Valley are not unique to Northwestern Montana. Land use issues, exacerbated by environmental conflict, global-driven economic change and festering racial discords, are testing many communities and in many ways have turned rural America into today’s political front line. But conflict in the Flathead Valley speaks loudly because it is one of America’s premier wilderness getaway destinations. With beautiful Flathead Lake at its center and Glacier National Park 30 miles to the north, the valley’s 80,000 residents host over two million visitors a year.
In recent years, the valley has attracted wealthy retirees and celebrities, who have driven up land values. New housing subdivisions and the economic infrastructure of tourism are eating up the open spaces they’re meant to enjoy. Meanwhile, the old industrial base of logging, smelting and millwork is eroding, and new environmental laws conflict with the working and recreational habits of many longtime residents.
Throw into this naturally stressful situation two disturbing elements of America’s hyper-antagonistic politics — right-wing talk radio and anti-government militia organizing — and the tension soon becomes volatile. Everyone agrees things took a sharp turn when failed political aspirant John Stokes came to town, bought local radio station KGEZ, and began hosting a daily talk show that was, for some, a breath of fresh air — and for others, a hateful and threatening voice. It’s the unapologetic Stokes who sponsors burnings of green swastikas, and who blandly disavows any hateful intent while broadcasting the home addresses of environmentalists, calling them “the enemy.”
That means that people like sawmill supervisor Scott Daumiller and his friend J.B. Stone, who are in the forefront of the local anti-environmental movement, and Joshua Closs, a young guest music DJ at the station, find Stokes’ provocations compelling. At the same time, people like ex-cop Kitterman, environmentalists Keith Hammer and Mike Raiman, and teacher Randy Hansen, feel themselves suddenly in physical danger. What had been a sharp disagreement between neighbors suddenly emerges as a possibly violent conflict with volatile, extremist forces.
Nothing was more telling — and is more disquieting in The Fire Next Time — than the community’s reaction to discovery of Project 7, its cache of guns and its hit list. The targets, after all, were not distant officials or outsider bureaucrats. They were everyone’s longtime neighbors, including popular Police Chief Frank Garner and Sheriff Jim Dupont. And while many citizens, like Brenda Kitterman and newly elected Mayor Pam Kennedy, felt immediately moved to rally in protest, there was a degree of denial about the potential danger. Those accused of being terrorists were also neighbors, who had carved out a place for their views in public meetings and on the radio. For elected officials like Pam Kennedy and Gary Hall, the daily blast of on-air attacks turns public life into a risky proposition, given the real threat from Project 7. The result was also a spreading fear as people began to weigh the costs of speaking out.
With the premise that ordinary people can sometimes, through inaction, allow extremist violence to grow against friends and neighbors, The Fire Next Time seeks to find out how the contentiousness in the Flathead Valley could take such a bitter and destructive turn — and once taken, how a community can marshal the will to pull itself back.
“We knew going in that what was disturbing the Flathead Valley involved some of the most critical issues facing the country today,” says director/producer Patrice O’Neill. “What we also discovered was a striking example of modern talk radio polarizing the political atmosphere, and just how high the stakes are — for our whole political system when conflicts like this erupt in growing communities.”
The Fire Next Time is a production of The Working Group in association with the Independent Television Service (ITVS). Major production support was provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Andrus Family Fund, the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, The Otto Bremer Foundation and The Greenville Foundation.