Reviewed by March Glassman
Darwin, California, population 35, is situated in Death Valley, with a sign just outside the town that proclaims “No Services Here.” Hardly an auspicious place to shoot a documentary and yet Swiss filmmaker Nick Brandestini’s feature won best doc prizes at the Zurich and Austin film festivals, a Special Jury Mention at Israel’s Docaviv and garnered a Festival Favorite accolade at Sundance, in 2011.
In Darwin, Brandestini performs the classic European cultural trick of arriving in a bizarre spot in the United States and finding revelatory material there. Think Werner Herzog’s Stroszek or Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas and you’ll get the picture. It may take an outsider’s perspective to find the poetic in the apparently mundane lives of Americans in Wisconsin or Texas or the California desert.
Certainly Brandestini brings a compassionate eye to the nearly abandoned town of Darwin. The aging population of former bikers, hippies and miners open up to him, sharing their stories about lives played out precariously on the margins of society.
Hank and Connie Jones, married and divorced multiple times before finding each other, have embraced Paganism. They spend a lot of quality time with Connie’s transgendered son Ryal and partner Penny, who introduced them to the Pagan faith. The duo are the local historians and it’s from them that the sorry saga of Darwin’s past is told.
Darwin is named after a failed gold prospector and army deserter with the colourful name of Dr. Erasmus Darwin French (raise hands if you think any of those names was given to him by his parents). Silver was discovered in the town in the 1870s and at the height of the mining boom, the town had 3500 people. When the silver was mined out, so went most of the population. A typical Wild West town, Darwin survived as an outpost for nearly a century until lead was discovered in 1945. Once again, the population increased until it, too, was mined out.
Now Darwin barely survives, its only neighbour being the China Lake Naval Base, where nuclear testing has taken place. Nearby is the ranch were Charlie Manson was arrested in 1969; Hank actually met him. Clearly, the town exists in an atmosphere where violence, both official and lawless, has been condoned.
Brandestini’s doc explores the failures of the children of Darwin’s denizens. One son dies, having been a drug addict for decades, without ever reconciling with his father. Another is serving life imprisonment in Nevada.
Yet the people of Darwin endure, tough as nails. The landscape, though harsh has a beauty to it and so, in their way, do the people of the town. In a quiet, unforced way, Brandestini makes his case for the outsiders of Darwin and their cluttered, odd, lives. Darwin is a small work but it has integrity and a kind of poetry.