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By Alicia MacLeay '97
Every winter, bison from America's last free-roaming herd leave the protection of Yellowstone National Park in search of grazing land. Since 1985 more than 3,000 bison that tested positive for the disease brucellosis have been killed by Montana's Department of Livestock, which maintains it is protecting local cattle herds. During the winter of 1996-97 1,000 bison were killed. The controversial practice has caused a clash involving government officials, ranchers, conservationists and Native Americans.
"Something wasn't right," said Matthew Testa '91, a former Jackson Hole, Wyo., newspaper reporter. "People were very concerned." While regional and national media covered the issue in 1997, it would be three years before Testa would examine the controversy on film as producer, director and cinematographer of The Buffalo War, an award-winning hour-long documentary of the conflict.
"I didn't want to do a news piece," said Testa, who made his first short documentary, Bill Briggs: Teton Pioneer, in 1995 and moved to New York City from Wyoming in 1996 to study film. Instead he sought characters for his film who had things at stake in the buffalo issue. They included the Lakota Sioux, who are culturally connected to the buffalo, environmental activists who oppose the government's slaughter and government officials and local ranchers who depend on public lands and healthy herds of cows for their livelihood.
Highlighted in The Buffalo War is a 500-mile Lakota Sioux spiritual march, from South Dakota to the park's north entrance, led by Lakota elder Rosalie Little Thunder. Testa asked if he could join the 1999 walk with his camera, but a week before it began he still didn't have permission. "I was just an independent with a friend to take sound," said Testa. Nine production companies wanted access, but the Native Americans didn't want their sacred journey to become a publicity stunt.
So Testa bought a ticket from New York to South Dakota on faith and called ahead to say, "I hope this is okay." When he arrived, the marchers told him, "We knew it was you when you said you bought a ticket on faith."
"It was a remarkable privilege," said Testa of being the sole cameraman to chronicle the winter journey.
The Lakota's solemn pacifism stands in contrast to the civil disobedience of the Buffalo Field Campaign, a group of environmental activists who use video cameras, elaborate road blockades and extreme tactics to keep buffalo out of state-run capture facilities. Even as the state baits facilities with fresh hay, the activists try to steer the one-ton animals back towards the park's sanctuary with noise, tree branches and snowballs. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.
Testa's film also documents the struggles and concerns of a traditional ranching family. As bison threaten the local ranching lifestyle and livelihood, ranchers like Keith Munns must try to coexist with the buffalo and ward off encroaching development. "I think environmentalism comes in a lot of shades," said Testa of the issue's complexities. "At Colby I had high-minded ideas. I've come to see things aren't always clear-cut. I've become more realistic about what's at stake for people."
Prior to The Buffalo War, Testa worked on documentary productions for National Geographic, The Discovery Channel, PBS and many independents. The Buffalo War has played at numerous film festivals across the country and earned The Golden Gate Award for environmental documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival, a merit award at the International Wildlife Film Festival and the jury prize for best documentary at the Newport International Film Festival. In November it will appear at the Margaret Mead Film Festival at New York's American Museum of Natural History.
Testa appreciates reaching new viewers and connecting with other filmmakers at festivals. "The film takes on a whole new identity every time you show it to an audience," he said. In November, Native American Heritage month, those audiences will expand further when PBS broadcasts The Buffalo War (check local listings or pbs.org for more information).
"Documentaries are ways to be creative and have imagination, but to expose yourself to new people and situations," Testa said. "There's so much in life that's dramatic and the stakes are so high in an average person's day. It presents an opportunity to make art that's moving."
For more information on the issue visit:
Buffalo Field Campaign: www.wildrockies.org/buffalo
Greater Yellowstone Coalition: www.greateryellowstone.org
Montana Department of Livestock: www.liv.state.mt.us
Bullfrog Films (distributor): www.bullfrogfilms.com 1-800-543-FROG
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