Film Review: No Man’s Land Reveals Both Sides of Tense, Timely Confrontation

The second installment of the quarterly film series “Dinner & Docs @ The Davis” is happening Wednesday, Sept. 27 with a preview screening of the powerful new work No Man’s Land, from director David Byars. He'll be on hand for a post-screening Q&A with Linda Tirado, poverty commentator and author of “Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.” The 7pm showing at the Davis Theater—4614 N Lincoln Ave.—will be preceded at 6pm by a buffet dinner (prepared by chef Gil Langlois) and cocktails at the adjacent Carbon Arc restaurant. Presented by the Chicago Media Project, the screening is free; tickets for the dinner and screening are $35 and are available here.

No Man's Land

Produced by Byars and Morgan Spurlock, No Man’s Land is a revealing blow-by-blow account of the 40-day, wintertime 2016 Oregon standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge between local and federal authorities and armed militia members. They were protesting the federal government’s wholesale takeover of large areas of land and turning them into federal property, thus giving local ranchers less land to make a living. The access granted to Byars and his team on both sides of the fight is extraordinary, showing us the many players in this struggle and how it ultimately escalated into a confrontation that resulted in one death. The films is so perfectly balanced that I found myself wavering as to exactly who the actual heroes were in this situation and who were the opportunists and outright conspiracy theorists that perpetuated the possibility of violence.

Initially, it’s difficult not to feel for the rancher’s plight, because they aren’t wrong. When you don’t have room to grow your business—especially when something like cattle prices drop severely—you run the risk of being driven out of work. But as one subject of the film points out, when you see these militia members show up with the most expensive weapons in the most expensive pick-up trucks, you find it hard to justify the outrage. Over the course of the movie, some of the uglier factions of this militia begin to make themselves known—racists, trigger-happy ex-military, and a leadership without an actual plan or set of demands beyond “freedom” and “the right to live our lives and make a living.”

The Wildlife Refuge (effectively a bird sanctuary) becomes a symbol of government waste and pointlessness, and after the militia take it over and the army of press arrives, it takes on the appearance of a stable, functional environment. All of which is slowly taken over by a paranoid leader in Ammon Bundy and various spokespeople who become addicted to the spotlight. On the other side of the struggle are local law enforcement, led by a sheriff who starts to cry almost every time he gets before a crowd or cameras. The townspeople of nearby Burns, Ore., were terrified of violence erupting and even closed the local school as a result.

With No Man’s Land (which premiered in April at the Tribeca Film Festival), Byars expertly chronicles both very public and surprisingly private moments on both sides, and by the end of the film, the definitions of ideas like “patriotism,” “revolution,” and “government” are so blurred as to seem almost meaningless. By pushing past the rather sensational headlines and sticking with the subjects months after the standoff, the filmmakers provide the most complete picture of both the Malheur incident and its repercussions.

But the film also legitimately wonders, what do you do when your government effectively gives up on you, and how do a disenfranchised people make their voices heard? And if you think that moments in history such as this don't factor into the most recent presidential election, you’ve stopped paying attention.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.