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Filmmaker David Byars talks about 'Public Trust'

Filmmaker David Garrett Byars’ monumental documentary “Public Trust” will be shown June 12, at the Ashland Independent Film Festival.

AIFF has moved online and extended the festival to 24 days in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The impetus for the making of “Public Trust” was President Trump’s proclamations dismantling two national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, both in southern Utah. The move stripped legal protections from nearly two million acres of federal public lands.

“Public Trust,” produced by Robert Redford and Patagonia, is cinematically breathtaking in the magnitude and beauty of the landscapes.

Byars’ first feature film, “No Man’s Land,” which depicts the 41-day occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, is now available on Prime Video and YouTube.

I chatted with Byars via Zoom.

EH: You didn’t go to film school, you just learned on the job?

DB: Every time I make a film, I learn more and more. If I do have one skill that makes me uniquely suited to be a director, it’s that I know I don’t know everything, and I need to learn it. I really do count on the people I work with in a very collaborative way to put their fingerprints on the film and make it better than merely the sum of all our efforts.

EH: How did you accumulate this exquisite footage in “Public Trust?”

DB: A lot of it, we got ourselves. We spent a lot of time in Utah, Minnesota and Alaska. Patagonia had this massive library that we got to choose from. They have been tracking these issues for a long time as well. They wear their values very upfront, and that’s what drives their company, rather than profit, and it’s worked for them. Their mission statement as a company is: “We’re in the business to save our home planet.” That drives everything they do. That’s what their film team was focused on as well. They’ve been making really good films for a while now. They know what they’re doing, and they are pretty savvy about it. It was a natural partnership. It moved very quickly. I was surprised and gratified.

EH: You found your love for public lands through outdoor sports?

DB: It’s everyone’s introduction to the land, whether it’s camping or hiking or biking or whatever. Through that you start to have a deeper appreciation or knowledge of what public lands are. Like everyone else, I took it for granted until I realized that there were people who wanted to take those things away from us as Americans. My introduction to that was the protest in southern Utah. Learning that it was under threat, that’s when I started to learn about and appreciate the philosophical underpinnings of what public lands are, and I’m still learning to this day, it’s such a vast topic and a vast physical object.

There’s a bitter pill to swallow in terms of appreciating these things and loving these lands. Something we ought to acknowledge about this land is: There were people here before America was even a thing. For hundreds and thousands of years, there were people who lived in and considered this land their own. That’s something we need to remember. I think we should be cognizant of that, because that’s the only way forward: From a place of truth and vulnerability.

EH: How will the film be distributed?

DB: It’s going to be a wide release. Our priority is to get it out there to a lot of people very easily, either for cheap or free. If people want to follow those announcements, follow our Instagram account. which is Public_Trust.

For the AIFF2020 Virtual Festival schedule, tickets and information, see ashlandfilm.org.

Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director based in Ashland. To read more interviews with remarkable people, visit her blog at ashlandtheater.net. Email her at evalyn_robinson@yahoo.com.

David Byars Photo courtesy IMDB