Crude Independence, Canary, Witch Hunt, and more

Crude Independence is a documentary about the town of Stanley, North Dakota. It starts with some background on the town’s history and people, and then concentrates on the ways that the discovery of oil has changed the town (actually, reading a bit more I see that the oil was discovered quite a while ago, but was not economically worth extracting until oil prices rose). Both long-time town residents and the oil workers who now spend substantial time there are given screen time. While there is some mention of then President Bush and the then presidential candidates McCain and Obama, this is a remarkably politically agnostic film, considering the political energy around, well, energy.

I thought the film was well made and quite neutral. The production values seemed good for a documentary not made by an established filmmaker. I’ll give it 3 stars out of 4 stars.

The director and editor were both at the screening to answer questions (there may be minor spoilers here, if a documentary can have spoilers):

  • The director and editor are both in school still, at Wesleyan in Connecticut, and are graduating this year
  • They filmed in January 2008 for a week, and then 5 weeks that summer
  • Oil prices were very high when they were filming, but are now much lower, so the wells are still running but they are doing very little new drilling
  • There was no outcry about the environmental impact, except for the one reference by the teacher to there being lots of trucks on the road where she jogged
  • The director has sent DVDs of the film to the town in the last month, but hasn’t heard any reaction yet
  • An audience member grew up in Stanley in the 1950s and was back last summer, and he thinks the film captures the town and the situation very well
  • This is the film’s third festival–SXSW is next
  • The film was made for under $10,000
  • An economist and former EPA person said the film is good since it’s so neutral
  • The director sold popcorn at a film center where Jonathan Demme goes, which is how Demme ended up as an executive producer and one of the investors
  • It was shot primarily on a prosumer HD camera, with some use of a smaller HD camera
  • The total crew was 3 people
  • They shot about 45 hours of footage, and the director helped with the editing
  • The director also wrote the score
  • The surface land owner cannot stop the drilling if they don’t have the mineral rights (or at best it’s really hard)
  • The town people were really ready to gossip, but the filmmakers pretty much left that footage out of the film
  • Those residents who did make significant amounts of money mostly kept quiet about it
  • The director learned about the town and their situation in the New York Times on New Year’s Day 2008–he had also just seen There Will Be Blood
  • The flames are from the natural gas, which at least as of when they were filming was not being captured

[This is the “and more” part from the post title.] There weren’t any films I really wanted to see right after Crude Independence, so I went to the Film and Innovation Forum called The Business of Art. There was a broad panel, covering finance, technology, producing, film packaging, and more. I can’t say I learned all that much, though one story from the moderator (a media academic from Monterey, whose name I did not catch because I arrived a few minutes late) stood out. Her 15-year-old daughter was temporarily living in a room with a large television, yet the daughter preferred to watch a movie on her laptop, while her friends watched it simultaneously wherever they were and they all interacted online. As an old fashioned “watch the film and give it your full attention” person, this was rather striking.

Canary is a very strange film. It opens with some scenes of people talking in other languages and no subtitles. I still don’t know what these scenes were about. And there were plenty of other scenes that seemed impenetrable as well.

The story that did seem slightly understandable was about a company called Canary Industries, which is in the so-called organ redistribution business, which seems to be organ transplants with serious strings attached. There is an early scene of what seems like a focus group trying to figure out how to market the company better, and not make it seem too creepy.

The main character was a mute woman wearing a Canary Industries jumpsuit, who seemed to be doing the organ repossession, but who also seemed to be invisible to everyone around her. The process involved some blue-green Jello and small coolers.

The film was apparently shot within blocks of where I saw it (at the San Jose Rep), including seeing the Camera 3 theater in one shot (about a block away). It was clearly very low budget, though I suspect many would say that the biggest cost cutting measure was not bothering to hire a writer. I should also note that many people walked out. But I actually enjoyed the puzzle of trying to figure it out, and some of the intriguing concepts embodied in the parts I could figure out. I’ll give it a strong 2.5 stars out of 4 stars. An earlier showing at Cinequest was the world premiere.

The director was at the screening and answered (and asked) questions briefly, but there just weren’t many questions. The following may include minor spoilers, and definitely includes some observations from audience members:

  • The film is amorphous, and each person might see it differently
  • The last scene could be seen as training the next generation of organ repossessor
  • The mute woman seemed to be invisible–one audience member took her to be metaphorical
  • Is the director on a mission to see how difficult he can make a film to understand? [Apparently the director had another film at Cinequest in a previous year, and it was almost as hard to understand. This was asked by Steve Rhodes.]
  • Some scenes were carefully scripted, and others much less so

If you’ve been to film festivals, you’ve seen lots of postcards on tables, advertising the films. Instead of a postcard, Canary had a tri-fold brochure for Canary Industries, written as if it were a real company, except for the URL on the back ( Here are a couple of quotes from the brochure:

  • If you are fortunate enough to have all of your original organs, please remember that those organs don’t belong to you. They are the property of the community.
  • In the event that someone needs one of your organs more than you do, you will be required to relinquish the organ. Whether you are living or dead, Canary Industries ensures that your organs get to the people who need them most.

Finishing my day, I saw Witch Hunt, a documentary about some falsely accused child molesters from Bakersfield, CA in the early 1980’s. It covers the story of the accusations against them, their trials, and their fights to be exonerated. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it’s very well done, and I think that the idea that accused criminals might sometimes be innocent and that the system is not perfect is an important one to cover. The film is narrated by Sean Penn, and it occurs to me to possibly connect his roles in Dead Man Walking and this film through the topic of the death penalty, which is the ultimate legal decision to avoid getting wrong. [Or to just avoid altogether, I would say, as someone who believes that the death penalty should be abolished.]

The film is very good and also important, though it didn’t affect me quite as much as I expected, which is always the danger of sky high expectations. I’ll still give it 3.5 stars out of 4 stars.

The two directors (Don and Dana) and Jill Kent from the Innocence Project were at the screening to answer questions (as usual, there may be spoilers here):

  • They started on the story before John Stoll got out
  • The film will play on MSNBC soon (I missed the date)
  • A commission recommended changes to laws to reduce these kinds of problems–it passed but was vetoed by the Governor
  • Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice is a San Jose Mercury News series of articles about 700+ cases in Santa Clara County
  • Sometimes there is actual molestation, but the wrong person is convicted
  • Most of the accusations started with custody cases
  • A belief that kids don’t lie is behind many of the problems
  • One thing used against the Kniffens was that there was nothing incriminating in their house, so they must have cleaned it up to hide something–amazing!
  • No one has been running against Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels, so he still has that position, but the Innocence Project person believes that he will be defeated in 2010
  • The California Attorney General didn’t feel that was his role to do more than he did, especially since his investigation was into the satanic ritual cases, which were not directly applicable to the pure molestation cases
  • Nothing happened to the investigator who hid evidence in his garage (but the Innocence Project is suing him)
  • The Innocence Project is working with district attorneys’ offices, and they may see the film

All seen on 3/7/2009 at Cinequest.


2 Responses to “Crude Independence, Canary, Witch Hunt, and more”

  1. Final Cinequest 19 Thoughts « Random Musings About Movies, Running, and More Says:

    […] Witch Hunt— […]

  2. Carol Says:

    Sheriff Youngblood –

    DA office email –

    Kern County Office URL :

    Do as you will.


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