Always dreamed of creating a talked-about TV documentary series? Here's how it's done:
Rachel Libert remembers reading a brief news item that said a tiny town in North Dakota had hit the oil jackpot. "I was really intrigued by the idea of a town that seemed to be on the verge of disappearing, and what the oil boom might mean," she said in an interview with HuffPost. "I acted very quickly because I was concerned somebody else might jump on it."
On her own dime, the 40-year-old Brooklyn filmmaker hopped on a plane and headed for Parshall, a town of 1,000 on the Great Plains with no restaurants, a dwindling population and no prospects: "Bad prices, bad crops, drier than hell," a rancher laments in Boomtown, Libert's marvelous five-part TV documentary on Parshall's transformation from bust to boom.
Libert filmed for a week in Parshall and then produced an eight-minute reel that was purchased by cable TV's Planet Green. She returned to Parshall in October 2009 with a five-member film crew.
They weren't exactly welcomed with open arms. Libert's New York City team first had to overcome a reserve and suspicion that she dubbed the "Fargo effect."
"People in Parshall reference Fargo a lot," she said, referring to the famed Coen Brothers black comedy. "They feel the movie didn't do them justice and they fear that somebody's going to do that to them again even though the film is set in a different part of North Dakota." (Fargo was shot in Minnesota and North Dakota.)
Shooting took 10 months, and by the second or third month, familiarity began to break down the barriers. "People saw that we were there for long periods of time and that we were doing something deeper than a news story," she said. " It's a small town, and when we weren't filming we'd see them on the street or the grocery store. People began to relax and get to know us."
Boomtown is the story of winners and losers. Ranchers who collect fat checks from the oil companies who drill on their land and ranchers who get nothing because they hold only "surface" rights to their property. These folks are forced to watch helplessly as oil rigs sprout on their pasture lands or even within shouting distance of their homes. (In many Western states, the oil or mineral rights beneath the land are owned separately.)
"Somebody can come on to your land and do whatever he wants," says ranch owner and victim Donny. "It just don't seem right."
Small businesses prosper and the town coffers swell in Boomtown. But the oil companies also devour millions of gallons of water while a parade of trucks stoke clouds of choking dust on the dirt roads cutting through the ranches.
The most striking feature of Boomtown is its immediacy and even-handedness. There's no narration and only a sprinkling of captions. Townsfolk tell their stories directly into the camera amid cinematography that captures the nitty-gritty of small town life and the grandeur of the plains.
"I like the idea of letting people speak for themselves, and then we can all draw our own conclusions," Libert said. "I didn't want the audience to feel the hand of the filmmaker. I wanted it to be as if you went to Parshall and took it all in for yourself."
The oil men, for example, are seen as they see themselves - benevolent agents of prosperity. We watch Kent, a Mr. Rogers type from the North Dakota Petroleum Council, bring the oil gospel to a classroom in the Parshall elementary school. "This bag of Lifesavers is very much like a barrel of oil," he tells the kids at one point. "You guys are so lucky because we need engineers, welders, machinists, truck drivers. So there's lots of opportunities for you guys when you get out of school."
These words in this setting would surely set the teeth of many environmentalists to grinding but there's no irony or archness in Boomtown. The camera simply captures Kent's words and moves on.
"We went in anticipating that there might be more resistance from the oil industry than there was," Libert said. "We told them that we wanted to tell their story, and that we weren't going to editorialize. I don't think the oil people who cooperated believed that there was a negative story to tell."
Libert, who grew up in Sarasota, Florida, and graduated from Boston University, had wanted to become a documentary filmmaker since high school, and got her start as a little girl by taking a dictation machine owned by her physician father and pretending to be a talk-show host while she interviewed dad, mom and her brother.
Her credits include the critically acclaimed Beyond Conviction, the story of a program in which victims of violent crimes meet their assailants. She's currently finishing work on Semper Fi: Always Faithful, a documentary about decades-long water pollution at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and its impact of Marines and their families who were stationed there.
Libert tries to bring an even-handed approach to all of her documentaries. "Who am I to tell everybody what I think? You try to present your subject in all of its fullness and complexity."