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OR Filmmakers Follow Malheur Refuge Takeover from Day One

This weekend, Richard Wilhelm and Sue Arbuthnot were at Diamond Craters, southeast of Burns, filming for their documentary about the issues raised in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge armed occupation. (Hare in the Gate Productions)
This weekend, Richard Wilhelm and Sue Arbuthnot were at Diamond Craters, southeast of Burns, filming for their documentary about the issues raised in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge armed occupation. (Hare in the Gate Productions)
September 6, 2016

PORTLAND, Ore. - Two Oregon filmmakers are among those who will closely follow the trial of Ammon and Ryan Bundy and their co-defendants on federal conspiracy and weapons charges.

Documentary filmmakers Sue Arbuthnot and Richard Wilhelm live part-time in Burns, where they noticed an anti-government rally in a local parking lot in January and decided to film it.

They didn't know that gathering would precede the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, or that it would spark their next documentary.

Since then, Wilhelm said they've amassed hours of footage, including interviews with insiders in the militia movement, voicing frustration over federal laws and land use.

"They have a lot of intentions toward finding a way to offer a local voice back to the people," he said. "And that resonated, but it didn't resonate in the way that they were doing it. The tactics were wrong; the message may have hit home."

The filmmakers said their documentary will focus on finding solutions to land-use issues and other challenges of rural life, and show that people can overcome their differences without resorting to extreme actions.

Sue Arbuthnot thinks hashing out those issues in person instead of on social media would be helpful. She said the armed takeover stole the spotlight from collaborations already underway between ranchers and tribes, federal agencies and townspeople.

"It's really not a land problem as much as it is a people problem, like everything," she explained. "And it is incremental, in terms of progressing beyond distrust to a situation of respect for other opinions, and finding that sliver of common ground."

The U.S. District Court judge in the Malheur refuge takeover case has said community members' fear during the armed occupation isn't relevant in proving the conspiracy charges against the defendants. But Arbuthnot said that fear lingers in Harney County nonetheless.

"I think a lot of people who have worked hard to build a community here have a palpable fear of that sort of disregard for law and order taking over," she added. "And I think that that has remained and has not really subsided, to this day. We do know people who are still quite anxious."

The film's working title is "Refuge," and it should be finished late next year.

Jury selection in the trial begins on Wednesday.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR