By Kristi Turnquist | The Oregonian/OregonLive | April 27, 2017 at 9:59 AM
Even though it officially ended on Feb. 11, 2016, the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon still stirs passionate opinions.
But Josh Turnbow, who directed “American Standoff,” a new documentary from the AT&T Audience Network about the occupation, says he wasn’t interested in taking sides.
“I was looking for an interesting documentary about where things were going in land management,” says Turnbow, a senior producer for content for DirecTV and AT&T.
In a phone call from his home base in Los Angeles, Turnbow says he’d long been interested in the topic of land disputes in the west. He was also hearing reports about right-wing extremism and anti-government movements.
“We were talking to Cliven Bundy in the summer of 2015,” Turnbow says, referring to the Nevada rancher whose refusal to pay grazing fees led to an armed confrontation with government agents in 2014 on federal land near Bundy’s ranch.
When two of Bundy’s sons, Ammon Bundy and Ryan Bundy, along with a group of armed protesters, took control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January, 2016, “We were on the ground two days later, filming,” Turnbow says.
“American Standoff” begins by recounting events that led up to the occupation. Turnbow, who was also the cinematographer, pays particular attention to the case of Dwight Hammond Jr., and his son, Steven.
The Harney County ranchers were convicted of arson for setting fires on federal land in 2001 and 2006. After initially being sentenced to serve lesser sentences, an appeals court ruled each of the Hammonds instead had to serve five-year mandatory minimum prison terms, with credit for time served.
The Hammonds’ case became a rallying point for members of self-identified militia and patriot groups, some of whom joined Ammon and Ryan Bundy when they took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, about 30 miles south of Burns.
“American Standoff” features a mix of digital content that was circulating online as the Oregon standoff was happening, along with interviews filmed by Turnbow and his small crew.
“American Standoff” includes a good deal of interview footage with Susan Hammond, wife of Dwight Hammond Jr. and mother of Steven. She recalls how she and her husband moved from Northern California to Oregon in the early 1960s, and expresses frustration with the federal law that sent her husband and son back to prison.
“Getting access to Susie Hammond was initially very difficult,” Turnbow says. “People don’t trust anyone wanting to talk to them on camera.” After what Turnbow describes as a “lengthy process,” in which “we were very transparent about our motivations, we were able to meet Susie Hammond.”
“We weren’t trying to take a side,” Turnbow says. “We were trying to accurately portray what caused the standoff.”
“American Standoff” includes interviews with Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward, and Harney County Judge Steve Grasty. But Turnbow says he wishes he could have interviewed more elected officials, adding that attempts to speak with representatives from federal agencies weren’t successful.
Disputes over land are only going to continue, Turnbow suggests, citing President Donald Trump’s April 26 executive order, which calls for a review of national monuments expanded or designated over the past two decades. His order, Trump said, would combat the “egregious abuse of federal power” such designations represented.
“Western land and public land will continue to be a really hot topic in American politics,” Turnbow says.
(Read The Oregonian/Oregonlive’s complete coverage of the Oregon standoff and the latest related developments.)
“American Standoff” premieres at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 4 on DirecTV, and can be streamed on DirecTVNow (if you don’t already have DirecTV, you can sign up for a free trial to stream the documentary at directvnow.com/