POV: Did you ever feel threatened while filming The Fire Next Time?
Patrice O’Neill: The first trip was the scariest because didn’t know the terrain and the situation still seemed volatile. I had spoken to quite a few people before I arrived, almost all of whom were happy that our film crew was coming to town. I’ve been making documentaries for years, but I’ve never spoken with so many people who were reluctant to go on camera.
Left: Director of Photography Blake McHugh with Director and Producer Patrice O’Neill on location in Montana.
The Project 7 revelations made people understandably wary. If well known public figures like the sheriff, police chief and judges could become targets of a militia group, ordinary people and most especially anti-hate or environmental activists felt vulnerable as well. They had reason to be nervous. Activists and even teachers who angered listeners would have their names bandied about on John Stokes radio show.
On our first trip, we flew into Missoula. My associate producer Brian Dentz and I were driving up the east side of Flathead Lake when we tuned into John Stokes radio show. Stokes and one of his guests were talking derisively about the Hands Against Hate/Not In Our Town meeting scheduled for that evening at the community college. Stokes suggested that his listeners attend to find out what was going on.
“Are you going to that meeting Dave?”
“No John, I think I’ll stay home and clean my gun. I’m going to take it apart, make sure the barrel is nice and clear…”
I don’t remember the whole description of the gun cleaning, but it was my first experience there with how innuendo could be so creepy.
When we arrived at Brenda Kitterman’s house, the phone was ringing constantly with callers wanting details about the meeting that evening. “We just got a call from someone who said a militia group called Project 56 is coming in from Libby for the meeting.”
I would quickly learn that there are many types of militia groups. Some are just people who consider themselves ready to help if local law enforcement or their country calls on them in case of an attack or some emergency. Some, like Project 7 have an active anti-government agenda. They believe the county sheriff is the highest legal authority. Each county in Montana has a number that identifies the county on license plates. Flathead County is identified by a 7.
We drove into town with Brenda. She stopped into Citizens for a Better Flathead to pick up t-shirts that they had printed up for the event. She and her thirteen-year-old daughter, Tricia, then visited a downtown Kalispell art gallery to pick up some posters. Marion Gerrish, an attractive spunky sixty-something was there with hundreds of Hands Against Hate posters. “This friend of mine called me today and said, ‘Marion, go to that meeting for us. I’m too afraid to go, but thank you for doing this.'”
Nearly two hundred people packed into the Flathead Valley Community College cafeteria for the first Hands Against Hate meeting. Many of the people we would end up interviewing — from all sides of the debate — were there that evening.
At the beginning of the meeting, they all watched “Not In Our Town,” our film about how people in Billings, Montana resisted hate violence in their community. I think this was a critical factor in gaining trust as we continued filming.
Over the course of the evening, people from widely different perspectives got up and spoke. They all agreed it was good to be against hate, but they had different interpretations of what that meant. But the experience of publicly speaking out and treating each other respectfully in this place on this evening seemed to have a powerful effect. You could feel the tension ease through the course of the evening.
I remember leaving the meeting after we’d packed up most of the gear and walking by myself back toward the van. It was crispy cold and my cowgirl boots were clicking loudly on the asphalt. Someone could just shoot me right now, I thought. But the people I had just met had changed the atmosphere, and like them, I wasn’t as afraid anymore.