Filmmakers hope viewers catch the drift(less)

May 7, 2019


People who don’t know what the driftless region is, do know this area of Minnesota, a swath of Wisconsin, Iowa and a corner of Illinois are different from the rest of the Midwest.

A group of filmmakers and nature videographers came together to help people put a finger on and a name to the unique region.

More than 220 people attended a screening Sunday of “Decoding the Driftless” at the Chatfield Center for the Arts. The more than hourlong documentary delves into the one-of-a-kind geological area teeming with unique wildlife.

The film featured natural ice caves that create below-freezing breezes in the middle of July, wildlife that hasn’t changed evolutionarily since the time of dinosaurs and towering bluff tops that hold fossils of tropical sea life.

The region gets its name from having avoided glaciation and the drift — debris and matter captured in glaciers and left behind when they melt. Ice Age glaciers literally plowed and receded across much of the rest of North America over tens of thousands of years. The driftless region was left untouched, leaving behind dramatic bluffs and ancient landscapes.

The film explores underground rivers, wildlife adapted to microclimates found in the region and the Mississippi River that helped carve out the bluffs made from ancient seabed sediment.

Producer George Howe presented the film and led a question and answer session after the screening. Aside from touring national film festivals, “Decoding the Driftless” hasn’t had many major screenings since its debut last year in La Crosse to more than 1,700 viewers.

That’s not to say it hasn’t met with success. The film has won multiple film festival awards, including for “best picture” and “best cinematography” in the documentary feature category at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Award.

Most screenings are small and are booked at request, Howe said.

“We’re just coming off the festival circuit,” Howe said. “These shows I’m doing are because people came to us.”

A four-year project, Howe and other producers Tim Jacobsen and Rob Nelson collaborated with Untamed Science under the direction and narration of Jonas Stenstrom.

Howe and the other producers are working to get the documentary broadcast on public television in each of the four states and then give viewers opportunities to screen it.

“The goal is to have millions of people see it,” Howe said.

Many of the people attending the screening said they appreciated seeing their home region on screen in a polished production. Even people who appreciate the region said the documentary was informative.

“So much stuff is in your backyard, and you haven’t even explored it yet,” said Ted Stier, of Eyota. Stier goes trout fishing in the region but said there were areas highlighted in the film he had never been to or heard of before. He and Heather Swan brought their daughter Evie Stier, 6, to the screening. The family goes fishing, camps and kayaks in the region.

Evie said she probably would keep enjoying the region as she gets older.

“I feel like it’s just a family tradition,” she said. “I really do like to do it.”

Howe said the film has a broad audience but added he hopes people who are leaders in the area or growing up in the region understand what a unique natural area they live in and protect it.

“I have faith that the local people, if they know what they have here and that it’s rare and special, they will help conserve and protect it,” Howe said.

Howe said some businesses have started using the film as a recruiting tool for their workforce. Talented people look for recreational opportunities when weighing options where to locate. People who come here for the natural recreation are also more likely to help take care of it, Howe said.

“It will inspire good, clean economic development,” he said.

For some viewers, the screening was an introduction to the driftless region as a concept even if they’ve lived here for years.

“It’s amazing how many people who live here and make a home here, they don’t even know the name of the area and how unique it is,” said Jenni Petersen-Brant, Chatfield Center for the Arts marketing director.

Petersen-Brant said she moved to Decorah from Nebraska after camping for three days in the region with her husband and has been aware that the driftless region is unique.

Lynn Harstad, a Chatfield Art Center board member, said she grew up in Wisconsin but never heard the term “driftless” until her church screened a 20-minute documentary that was a precursor to “Decoding the Driftless.” When she learned of the full-length film, she reached out to project leaders to bring it to Chatfield.

The turnout on a Sunday afternoon encouraged board members to plan another screening. A date for that has not yet been scheduled.