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Our town (sort of) - 'The Fire Next Time' prescribes a panacea for an acute problem

When former cop Brenda Kitterman teaches her teenage daughters to fire a gun in response to verbal threats the family has received, we know the community of tiny Kalispell, Montana is nearing complete breakdown. Filmmaker Patrice O'Neill tries to capture the clashing forces of environmentalism, globalization, racial tension, and brute nature that are tearing apart the town in her P.O.V. documentary The Fire Next Time.

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Mill foreman Scott Daumiller is sympathetic to Kalispell, Montana residents who resent environmentalists they feel are trying to end their way of life.

Capturing frank conversations with Kitterman and residents such as mill foreman Scott Daumiller, O'Neill succeeds in conveying the emotional state of ordinary humans caught up in an epic battle. In stark contrast to the Civil Rights era, when street-level activists often had to fight entrenched political powers, the civic leaders of Kalispell sound open-minded, reasonable, and eager for harmony and compromise. It is the lumber-mill workers, loggers, and John Stokes, an outrageous radio-station owner and talk-show host, that, true to Stokes' name, feed the flames of enmity and violence.

"The Third Reich was born out of the environmental community," Stokes tells the camera not long after scenes in which an angry crowd burns a tree in the shape of a swastika. Conservationists such as arborist Mike Raiman (who likes to tromp through the woods with a hunter-orange vest and a rifle as much as the next guy) feel increasingly besieged, town meetings become shouting matches, and teachers are confronted for talking about the U.N. and participating in a Martin Luther King essay contest. The mysterious, unsolved death of an out lesbian, environmentalist, and experienced outdoorswoman in a 20-inch creek behind her house and the discovery of a local terrorist cell and its hit list adds to the air of suspicion and lends credence to threats such as those made against Kitterman's family.

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Arborist Mike Raiman is a hunter and sportsman who believes in conservation.

But the filmmaker chose not to include factual background information that would help the viewer grasp the exact nature of the problems that Kalispell's residents face, and this is almost a fatal flaw. How many people have lost their lumber industry jobs? What has the environmental community accomplished besides closing some trails to motorized recreational vehicles? How are global economic pressures affecting this seemingly remote paradise? This lack of detail leaves us to puzzle out the connection between white supremacism, anti-environmentalism, talk radio, and commercial development. Most importantly, it furthers O'Neill's conceit that Kalispell is Anywhere, USA. At the end of the film, she organizes a one-year reunion photograph of residents who are willing to work with their opponents and asks the viewer, Would you stand with fellow residents with whom you disagree?

POV: The Fire Next Time
10pm Tue, Jul 12
KLRN-TV
Check klrn.org for local listings
At this point it seems that O'Neill never was an objective documentarian but a would-be peacemaker who is not all that interested in understanding Stokes' fan base. This may be a noble intention, but one of the anti-environmental and anti-development factions' biggest complaints is that outsiders come in and try to foist cookie-cutter solutions on their town. As many veterans of political negotiations could tell O'Neill, the devil is in the details, and communities succeed or fail on their ability to create solutions to concrete problems as much as appeals to our common humanity.

By Elaine Wolff


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