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Prairies, bison and nuclear warheads – a 2002 postcard from North Dakota

North Dakota is a ‘breadbasket’ state where the fields aren’t so fertile, a seat of US nuclear might in a post-Soviet age, and – before you Google it – the Dakota without any presidents carved into its mountains. Facing soil erosion and decades of near-flat population growth, in the 1980s it was even proposed that most of the state be restored to native prairie grassland where American bison herds could roam free – a concept named ‘Buffalo Commons’.

Predating an oil boom that revitalised North Dakota’s economy (while giving rise to new environmental and human rights controversies), the documentary Buffalo Common (2002) finds the state a depleted landscape, with little in the way of identity or hope. The Texas-born filmmaker Bill Brown provides an outsider’s tour of North Dakota – suffused with a Scandinavian and agrarian heritage, and pockmarked by remnants of the Cold War. Lending his distinctive monotone to the narration and capturing the region’s quaint grandeur in stark black-and-white, Brown’s understated piece is both a haunting snapshot of time and place, and an accomplished work of auteur filmmaking.

Director: Bill Brown

9 June 2020

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