Empty Quarter

(2011, 16mm black & white/sound, 71 minutes)

Empty Quarter is a film about the region of Southeast Oregon, an area populated by ranching and farming communities, in Lake, Harney, and Malheur counties. The region is roughly one-third of Oregon’s landmass yet holds less than 2% of the state’s population.

Southeast Oregon, though familiar by name is a foreign place, particularly to those who reside in urban environments. It is a landscape in the making, constantly undergoing change, being re-worked. It is a highly politicized landscape, evoking differing opinions concerning resource management and land use. It is also a landscape that is, despite some beliefs, rich with diversity, as seen by the presence of East Indian and Japanese families, ancestors of Basque sheepherders, home to the Paiute tribes people, and to Latinos who have come to help work the land.

Empty Quarter departs from a documentary form that utilizes “talking head” interviews and “B-roll” or “cut-away” images tied together with occasional narration. The film instead presents stark portraits, waiting to be explored and digested by the viewer. Meaning is extracted in the slow process of accumulation and measured response. Through a series of stationary shots, recording open landscapes and the activities of local residents, Empty Quarter reflects on the character of the region. Natural areas are viewed among images of industry, various labor processes, resource management and recreation. Voices of local residents describe the history of pioneer settlement, social life of rural communities and the struggles of small town economies.

“Shot in scantily populated southeastern Oregon, EMPTY QUARTER presents a series of near-static shots of farms, factories, townscapes, and—in dispassionate middle distance—people going about their mundane daily tasks. These scenes are punctuated by blank-screen commentaries from various residents, each reflecting in some way on what has been lost to the ravages of time and industry. This mix isn’t as dry or dour as it sounds: With patience, the film’s visual rhythm clicks and combines with the palate-cleansing talking-headless voiceovers (which subtly shift our perception of the images that have passed and color the ones that follow) to cohere into a canny, uniquely tactile portrait of American progress in all its ironies.”

           Mark Holcomb, The Village Voice

 

"EMPTY QUARTER isn’t just set in a land that’s approaching the definition of unsettled (the frontier closing, as defined by Frederic Jackson Turner in 1893, when the population reached one inhabitant per square mile). And it’s not just filmed in a landscape that visually can be so empty you lose a sense of direction in it. The film is also probing that sparsely inhabited region of consciousness where we grasp at straws in order to understand the world. Above and beyond the issues of human cognition in such a place, and the formal syntax of documentary film that’s explored to an edge, Alain LeTourneau and Pam Minty have slowed us down enough to appreciate, as well, how the settler and Native American communities obtain such intelligence as is necessary to inhabit and sometimes even thrive in such a place."

           William L. Fox, Director, Center for Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art

 

"Built like a time capsule, EMPTY QUARTER is a portrait of a place and a time: the early years of the 21st century, in the southeast quarter of the state of Oregon. Sparsely inhabited, seemingly vast. Not the rugged green mountains, sea-sprayed pacific coast, nor urban hipster hubbub of Oregon tourist tracts, this corner needs a five mile to the inch magnification even to be made real on Google Maps. The farms portrayed evoke some not too distant past, riding the edge of family and factory with methods not quite as mechanized or dehumanized as we have imagined an agribusiness that feeds the millions. It may well be the very human aspect of these scenes that makes them harder to process. The time spent on these well framed and fixed camera scenes is a gift. We rarely allow this much time for the event (or non-event) in front of us to unwind. These are scenes typically observed out of a car window from a distance, never halting to feel both the silences of vast fields and the drone of farm machinery tearing through it. Move past too quickly and it is most certainly rendered banal, where wonder is transformed into the remedial. To sense the details and particularities of this landscape is to stop and inhabit it. EMPTY QUARTER offers us this rumination. It may even demand it. There is something both fantastic and utterly hopeless about observing the movement of massive farm machinery across vast fields while giant hangars of hay bales sit idle. Lives are being lived, stories are told. There is a palpable struggle at work."

            Alex MacKenzie, experimental film artist, founder of the Blinding Light Cinema and the Vancouver Underground Film Festival

Funded in part by