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This Alum is Telling Powerful Stories of Place Through Documentary Film

Above: Hilary Byrne (right) with Co-Director, Sophie Danison (left)

When we first met Hilary, she’d recently graduated from the University of Vermont, and was vying for an internship with the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. With a background in film and television studies, it was her dream to harness the power of film to tell stories that could shift perspective and create social change. She didn’t end up taking that internship, but instead, found a place on the Kelly Campus of Teton Science Schools, where she got the chance to capture the stories of graduate students and program participants through the lens of her camera. Experiencing the power of place-based education—“the way the story of ecology was being presented and the way students shifted their attention and willingness to learn based on their hands-on experiences”—inspired her and with two weeks before the new graduate cohort started, she enrolled.

“Seeing students who were known to have ADD or were troublemakers in class or seemingly unengaged by a topic at the beginning, take a turn and really become engaged and want to know the story of the earth and the place that they were in [was inspiring]. I…wanted to be a part of it.”

After her graduate program experience and a few short stints as an instructor for field education programs, Hilary turned back to her love of film and storytelling. She has produced content for Red Bull Media House, National Geographic, Outside Television and was the lead editor of Unicorn Picnic’s acclaimed ski film, Pretty Faces. Most recently, in her directorial debut, she premiered The Quiet Force, a documentary film telling the story of immigrants who keep ski towns running. We got the chance to hear from Hilary about what “place” means to her, how it’s influenced her work, and why inspiring empathy and action in humanity is the ultimate goal.

TSS: What does “place” mean to you?

Hilary: Place means a lot. I think when you talk about it in terms of nature and the connection to it I think, you know, you can never really feel connected living in a place if you don’t really attach to your surroundings and understand them. And whether that’s the environment or the people or the community or the problems surrounding those things, I think it’s really important to have a wholesome understanding of the place. And not only the place you live, but how it connects and relates to the other ones, the ones surrounding it, and the big one (being the earth). I think not having a connection in whatever way that is—however that connection works for you—is really a bad thing in this world because if we aren’t able to find that connection we don’t realize the importance of what these places are and mean and can offer us and each other.  

Hilary shooting footage for The Quiet Force.

TSS: How has your TSS experience and connection to place inspired the work you currently do?

Hilary: Through teaching you’re making stories, you’re telling stories, and presenting stories in new ways that can change perspective and I think that’s very similar to what film does. I’ve always had a strong connection to place and sense of place and but I think that grew a lot stronger [during the graduate program]. There is real need for telling the stories and creating stories that can help protect and raise awareness for these special places, that really offer a lot to humanity. I think when you watch the film you’ll see the last quote is by one of our characters whose identity we don’t reveal because he’s undocumented and he says:  “I like to breathe this air. Mother nature gives us all this. So, I like to enjoy it.” We’re all human and we all desire the same things in life. Why should some of us be denied that connection to the place they live just because they’re different?

TSS: You’ve been involved in telling a number of stories through documentary film. What was the moment you and Sophie decided for yourselves that the The Quiet Force story needed to be told?

Hilary: At the time I was working at Teton Gravity Research working on some TV shows that were inspiring to people but not really feeding my desire to tell stories with some meat—that can shift perspective and impact social change. I was feeling uninspired and identifying that the action sports industry has a lot of power to tell stories, a captive audience, and a lens to tell those stories through that can really resonate with and grab peoples’ attention. Sophie and I worked together on Pretty Faces and we started chatting about this—that we were feeling like we weren’t using the full power and potential of storytelling, nor feeding our “storytelling souls” — and so we just started brainstorming: what can we do with the industry we know but tell a story with meat to it? We had read an article in Powder called “The Quiet Force” and revisited it and said, “Wow. This is a story of that nature and its happening right now in our town” with Jackson being 30 percent hispanic and the backbone of the service industry being a very quiet one. When we started talking about it, people didn’t realize that their own town—in some cases the industry that some of the people were working in—was made up of 30 percent Latino workers and they were quite literally the quiet force. And so we reached out the writer, David Page, and started developing the idea in the fall of 2016. And then Trump got elected and the rhetoric around the topic picked up and we had a bit more fire under our bums to tell the story. And now it’s ever so relevant.

Hilary shooting footage for The Quiet Force at the US/Mexico border.

TSS: What were some of the challenges you faced during the project?

Hilary: I think one of the biggest challenges was sleeping at night knowing we were doing something that would help, not hurt, and really being as careful as we could so as not to make the situation worse, which we knew was a possibility. How do we go about doing that so that we are protecting people the best that we can knowing there’s this big threat that it’s possible our project would make it worse? We protected the identity of some of the people in the film and worked a lot with Jackson’s immigration attorney, Elizabeth Trefonas, and really tried to do the best we could in telling a story that wasn’t going to put people in danger nor be so radical in that we didn’t offer realistic solutions to the problem we were highlighting, but that it was thoughtful in that regard.

And then it was also challenging because this was the first big hoorah for Sophie and I on our own. We funded it, we directed it, we produced it, we edited it and neither of us had been in some of those positions much less without any other support. Not to say we didn’t have other support; it was an incredibly supported project in that when we decided to tell the story the community really reached out and wanted to see it happen. People donated their time, asked to help wherever they could, built a website for free, helped us shoot some things for discounted rates, lent cameras, but it was a lot of work without a lot of money. But ultimately the first challenge was the most nerve wracking.

Young Latino skier in Jackson Hole.

TSS: What has been your most rewarding moment since The Quiet Force premiered?

Hilary: At the Jackson premiere we sold out the Center For the Arts, which blew our mind and then had await list and got a standing ovation in a theater of 500. The really amazing part for me, when I knew this was working and was doing what we intended to do, was when I had people coming up to me afterwards saying “Thank You” and “I want to do an employee training so that my employees know what to do when ICE raids happen. Who do I talk to?” The proactiveness, the call to action happening right then and there was the most rewarding moment and it’s happened since. Every showing, people have come up and said similar sentiments. At our premiere in Bozeman we brought a Latino woman on stage who’s a citizen, but immigrated, and she gave a really heartfelt speech. My roommate, who works with her at the hospital, said since then, she’s been getting emails everyday from people who want to help and contribute to her non-profit and she can’t even keep up with it. It’s those moments where we know that the discussion happened through our film and created inspiration. That’s the goal.

TSS: If it could be one thing, what would you want viewers to walk away from one of your films knowing?

Hilary: We’re all human and we want the same things out of life. To be a good neighbor. We’re all human, let’s find that empathy and do something about it. The film that I’m working on now is called Omoi Yri and it means empathy with action—that is what we’re doing with The Quiet Force. Creating empathy but then doing something about it with the “Do Something” page on our website and panel discussion after each screening. And ultimately it’s our hope that other people will find empathy, get inspired, and do something about it, too.

If you want to learn more about the film, catch it on tour, or host a screening in your town visit www.quietforcefilm.com.

 


 

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