[img id="88928" align="left"/] Portland-based filmmakers Pam Minty and Alan LeTourneau captured the agrarian and vast expanse of southeast Oregon in their experimental documentary Empty Quarter, screened last Thursday at the Film Studies Center. Fittingly, Empty Quarter derived its title from a history textbook used to describe the sparsely populated region. The three counties featured in the documentary—Lake, Harney, and Malheur—make up one-third of Oregon’s landmass, but contain less than 2% of the state’s population.
Empty Quarter featured various still shots of the largely undisturbed landscape and clips that showed the daily lives of the residents. The film portrayed a balance between work and leisure by showing shots of the hard-working ranchers as well as friends and families gathering in a restaurant. The documentary also contained testimonials from residents who spoke about the history of the region as well as the hardships the farmers and ranchers face. The choice to use just the audio from the interviews placed focus on the actual interview, rather than on the appearance of the speaker.
The 16-millimeter shots of the Oregon countryside were mesmerizing and serene, but the film also depicts the difficulties of rural life and small town economies. In one testimonial, a resident described the impact of the rising cost of living and inflation on the farming community, claiming, “Everyone’s making money but the farmer.”
In a question-and-answer based discussion following the film, Minty said that she got the idea to make this film because her father grew up in the area, and her childhood family vacations were spent visiting relatives in southeast Oregon. LeTourneau, also an Oregon resident, stated that he had an interest in making a film about the “empty quarter,” but for a different reason.
“I am interested in the arbitrary nature of borders. The residents tend to identify more with Idaho and are more conservative. They have a conflicted identity in terms of statehood; most of the government [action] takes place in Salem and Portland,” he said.
Together, Minty and LeTourneau collaborated with the Chamber of Commerce and denizens of the area to capture shots of everyday life in southeast Oregon, primarily between May and October. LeTourneau stated that the people they filmed were “open” and “socially engaging,” and the personalities of their subject came alive through the short clips of ranchers working and families enjoying downtime.
Since its release earlier this year, Empty Quarter has been shown in several venues across the country. In the future, Minty and LeTourneau hope to return to southeast Oregon and screen the film as a measure of gratitude. The process was painstaking, but they captured their subject well and left the audience in awe of the scenic landscape. Empty Quarter took ten years to shoot and produce, but it was well worth the wait.