A Complex Portrait of the Land
What's most striking about Arid Lands, the debut film from Grant Aaker B.A. '02 and Josh Wallaert B.A. '02, is what it doesn't do. The filmmaking duo steers clear of polemic in this complex portrait of eastern Washington. While the two don't pull any punches, neither do they accost unsuspecting interview subjects or ridicule any segment of government or society. There's no controlling narrative leading to a singular, damning conclusion. Instead, they let their 27 subjects speak for themselves without voice-over or directorial intrusion.
Objectivity and balance are admirable goals considering the controversial nature of the issues facing eastern Washington in the 21st century: The U.S. Department of Energy's Hanford plutonium processing site is now the target of a $50-billion cleanup effort; unchecked development is forever changing the landscape; citizens routinely fight over water rights; and salmon have to be shipped around man-made dams to follow their migratory paths.
Two years before Wallaert and Aaker decided to document issues facing eastern Washington, they traveled through the region on a road trip while headed to points farther east. Wallaert, who majored in English, was struck by the landscape, by the story of Hanford, and by development in the Tri-Cities area. "I realized there's no better way than film to tell a story about geography or place," he says. While enrolled in a graduate program in creative writing, he decided to return to eastern Washington to film a documentary, with Aaker's help.
After completing coursework for his major in philosophy, Aaker spent a year in TV production in New York as part of Lewis & Clark's off-campus study program. He was placed with a start-up company that gave him the opportunity to help make a film from genesis to final airing. One film, a documentary of Hollywood paparazzi called Hollywood Hunt Club, was picked up by AMC. After that experience, he felt ready to collaborate with Wallaert on the project that became Arid Lands.
To make their film, the two lived in eastern Washington for three months. They worked at first to gain people's trust and learn their stories. "Josh and I came from Lewis & Clark with radical ideas," says Aaker. "With the blind idealism of college students, we went to this place that is conservative and steeped in World War II history." As the two got to know the Tri-Cities community, they found it open, its inhabitants likeable. "We didn't want to knock any of them down," says Aaker. "We wanted to portray them as people worth understanding and acknowledge where they come from. Watching Arid Lands, you can line up where you are in your thinking but not write off those with differing views."
Wallaert concurs. "Hanford is so politically charged," he says. "But our political perspective is pro-place. The only political edge we wanted the film to have is that place is important. We didn't want to impose our own ideology on the story."
Geography and how it affects communities are especially compelling to Wallaert, owing in no small part to a course he took with Kurt Fosso, associate professor of English. "That class trained me to look at the intersections between language and environment, at how environments are represented in literature," he says.
While Wallaert and Aaker are both interested in returning to documentary work in the future, for now, they've decided to follow more pragmatic paths, especially since they funded Arid Lands entirely out of pocket and have yet to realize a return on their investment. Wallaert works as a freelance writer in Vancouver, B.C., and Aaker is enrolled in medical school at Cornell University.
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