Land of the Free explores how a modern, armed, civilian organization is preparing for the collapse of society and reviving the meaning of a what it is to be in a militia. It challenges the perceived motivations of a militia making few illusions about what they represent; an unapologetic view that may indeed be more in line with the pivot politics - and ideas of personal freedom - are taking in the United States.
The United Sentinel Militia is Utah's largest active constitutional militia group. The project is an intimate portrait of two families, the Woods and Wentz' who joined USM to protect their spouses, children and neighbors from catastrophes and to defend their communities. The film covers a two year period with both families, including extensive interviews with the Wood's and Wentz's touching on the beliefs and purpose of the USM, their motivations for joining a militia, and the stigma surrounding their membership. The B-roll footage shows militia exercises in the rural landscape of Lake Mountain and in the high desert plains of Roosevelt, UT where training exercises show the typical activities of the USM, as well as the periphery lives of the Wood and Wentz homes.
The director, Kim Raff, uses her roots in photojournalism to create compelling footage that has a journalistic feel. Land of the Free is part news documentary, but with a intimate human narrative told in the voices of the militia members. The film maker is not attempting to draw conclusions, but instead gives the audience access to a group they might not otherwise think to question, or be compelled to know moreabout.
Video West, a collaborative video series curated by Doug Fabrizio and KUER, is a willing resource for editing the footage and creating a documentary short. The last piece of the puzzel is distribution. Land of the Free film is seeking support for distribution through media outlets to bring the story to a national or international audience.First Person Narrative:
As the gun debate was raging nationwide in January 2013 following the Sandy Hook massacre a strong and vocal backlash to gun regulation was building in Utah. Looking for a way to investigate the story, I researched local militias and was surprised by the exponential membership growth in groups like the United Sentinel Militia, Utah's largest militia group. My first introduction to the militia was through Torrey Webber, then commander of the USM, who gave me access to their members and events. That was the beginning of a now three-year journey that has shattered my understanding of what drives men and women to spend weekends learning how to rescue a hostage, or how to search a dead body. I've learned these are not a tin-foil hat wearing crowd, hording weapons as they espouse conspiracy theories. They are average men and women working days jobs, raising their children and paying mortages and yet bracing for what they say they never hope happens: a fight against society's collapse.
“You don't start preparing for the flood after the water is already there, you know, you see the rainstorm coming and you start building sandbags,”Torrey Weber, former USM Commander said. “I'm not saying that it's gonna happen tomorrow or five years from now or ten years from now, or never, hopefully,”
I began documenting the USM only with a still camera. I captured them in their living rooms and kitchens, not just in the rural meadows and mountains sides that have become their training grounds. And in that time, I’ve discovered a nuanced group more compelling than the caricatures that make its way onto TV and into print. But the photos did not capture their entire breadth. There were moving pieces that needed capturing and voices that needed voice.
“The word militia itself was really scary to me,” militia member Autumn Wentz said. “And so, militia was definitely something that was extremely far fetched on actually being part of.”
The idea to begin using video emerged as I saw the depth of their decision to join the USM.
“If something were to happen and our government was not able to protect us, I don't want to be one of those helpless people that's just gonna fall by the wayside, I'm willing to do what it takes,” USM member James Wood said. “I'm a patriot. I 'm willing to bleed on that flag to make sure that those strips stay red.”
I've discovered many honest and thoughtful answers to the question, “Why did you join a militia?” The members are dynamic people, especially when in the company of a willing-to-listen audience. Their voices are recognizable and reasonable. An so, for me, it made sense to focus a large portion of the project on creating a documentary short.
The experience of Autumn and Banner Wentz is the backbone of the short film. Their journey into the militia began while attending the now-infamous Battle of Bunkerville, a showdown between Cliven Bundy and the Bereau of Land Managment. Finding inspiration in the debate over land use in the West, they left that experience in search of a way to channel their interest in the movement.
“All these political decisions that are actually being made actually do effect me on a personal level and it was just ... somebody took the rose colored glasses off, is what it felt like,” Autumn Wentz said.
As I saw it, they were a family looking for a like-minded community, but were still scared of the stigma and stereotypes that goes along with the idea of a militia. Their's was a measured process.
I was with Autumn at her first training event, a “cleaning day” at the training grounds. She was a bit nervous and wondering where she fit in.
“It wasn't anything like what I'd imagined militia people would be,” she said. “That was the first time that I started to think 'Well maybe I could do this. Maybe I could join a militia.' The really scary part was already done and over with.”
In the years since, I've watched as Autumn and Banner have became regulars at trainings, often with their three children in tow. It's Autumn's enthusiasm that leads the family forward. I've watched as she's learned to shoot an AR-15 and become part of a tight knit militia family and taking a leadership role in the group.
“Militias aren't as scary as what I always thought they were. The training I've gotten out of it is unbelievable. You know now I know when Banner goes to work I know that if something happens I can take care of myself. I can take care of the kids and I have people to count on... It's not just me against the world anymore,” Autumn said. “Militia's aren't what they're portrayed. It's just a bunch of normal people getting together and training. You know we're training for that what if. But.. you go out and you train for a day then the rest of the time you're just as normal as my neighbor next door.”