Film critic Robert Horton interviews the filmmaker Peter Richardson, whose film “Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon" airs on Reel NW on Monday, Dec. 12, at 10 p.m.
“Clear Cut” chronicles the culture war that rocked the town of Philomath, Oregon, just a few years ago. An endowment left by a successful timber magnate, the Clemens Scholarship, which guaranteed college tuition to any student who graduated the local high school—no strings attached—was suddenly in jeopardy as the custodians of the endowment expressed their disapproval of the school's updated curriculum.
I exchanged emails with director Peter Richardson about the film's making.
Where are your own roots--and what kind of high school did you go to? I guess the pun on "roots" is intentional, if you come from a background involving the timber world.
I actually grew up in Philomath, so my roots are quite close! My family moved there when I was 6, as I was just about to enter the first grade. We migrated from Southern California -- the Los Angeles area -- and so I spent my entire childhood, up until my graduation in 1998, at Philomath schools. My dad was not in the timber industry, nor did we have any family in that industry. Yet because I went to Philomath schools for more than eight years I met the Clemens Scholarship eligibility requirements and was a recipient of the scholarship. I used it to help pay my tuition at the University of Notre Dame, where I studied film production and theory.
When making a documentary with passionate viewpoints, how do you go about keeping your approach as even-keeled as that expressed in “Clearcut?” (I can tell you that my wife was shouting things at certain people while we were watching the movie.) Did you have to convince the interviewees that the approach would be fair to both sides?
Going into the film I knew, purely from an ethical and journalistic perspective, that I wanted to represent both sides of the story as evenly and fairly as possible. I felt a responsibility to the people who were so generous and trusting of myself and my camera to represent them fairly. My goal while I was editing was that they would be able to sit down, watch the film, and say "Yes, that's me and that represents my viewpoint. I may not agree with the other guy who comes after me, but that's an accurate portrayal of how I feel and what I think."
I think we as documentary filmmakers have an overriding and primary responsibility when we are making our films to be fair with those we are representing. What I discovered in editing was that this approach of scrupulously showing each side of this very polarized argument also served the story as well. This was what the story was about: It was about this conflict, this back and forth, and the more the film focused on that, and the more I could humanize each side, and really let them have their say, the harder and (hopefully) more interesting it would be for the viewer to decide where they stood on what was really a pretty complex set of issues and a value struggle playing out in this small community.
Did you sense right away that this was not just a movie about a small Oregon town, but a snapshot of America at large in the 21st century?
The realization that this story had national political overtones was really what drew me to it. And that idea was reinforced by the fact that, by the time I moved back home to Philomath from Los Angeles (where I was working at the time -- my first job out of college) the story of what was happening in Philomath had already run on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, had been on the Today Show, Fox News, etc. So the national interest and appeal was evident. The challenge then was to tease out those elements, but not do it in a way, stylistically, that felt forced or "put on." Just let the story tell itself, let the viewer discover it, and not try to force it into something bigger.
There was a huge learning curve in the editing process because prior to this I had only made one documentary, a 12-minute short with a friend in film school, so taking on a feature -length project was daunting. Added to that was the reality that, for practical and stylistic purposes, I didn't want to use voiceover narration. And the story itself is quite complex, with a lot of exposition that needs to come out, but it had to happen only through the words of those I had interviewed. So I learned a lot editing the film. And it go to the point with every edit where I would just ask myself "How does this move the story forward? Is this the next 'beat' in the story?" And, most of the time, if the answer was no I would cut it from the film.