“Decoding the Driftless”


Photo courtesy of the "Decoding the Driftless" trailer

“Decoding the Driftless” brings views from the driftless region to audiences around the world.

The Communication Studies department, in cooperation with the nonprofit Sustainable Driftless, screened “Decoding the Driftless,” an hour-long nature documentary about the driftless region, on Nov. 5th in Olin 102. Producer George Howe answered questions from the audience after the screening.

The area made up of western Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota, northwest Illinois, and northeast Iowa gets its name because the region was not flattened by glaciers in the last Ice Age, creating a landscape with karst topography.

The film explores features of the Driftless region, such as blufftop sinkholes, ice caves, and cliffside hawk’s nests. Some of the locations it depicted, such as algific talus slopes, goat prairies, and ancient archeological sites, are completely closed to the public to protect their fragile ecosystems from damage. This film was meant to be a way for people to experience the diverse aspects of the driftless region.

Director Jonas Stenstrom and producer Rob Nelson also run a website and YouTube channel called “Untamed Science,” which is dedicated to producing documentaries and teaching the art of documentary filmmaking. The pair teamed up with Sustainable Driftless, a nonprofit organization created to help finance the film and to highlight, preserve, and document the Driftless region.

Howe is an Emmy-award-winning producer and board member of Sustainable Driftless and has been working to document the area for years.

“I’ve worked in this area as a scientist and an educator,” Howe said. “I’d see all these cool [documentaries] on PBS and I thought, ‘Why didn’t anyone ever make one about this area?’ I got lucky and ran into some people, and we made a pilot film before this: ‘Mysteries of the Driftless.’ It did very well and it won an Emmy. That gave us the gumption to say, ‘Yeah, let’s do a longer one.’”

Since “Mysteries of the Driftless” came out in 2013, Howe and his team have been working to create a feature documentary about the Driftless. After forming Sustainable Driftless and running an Indiegogo campaign, production began with a quarter million dollar budget. Howe said that at times the filming diverted from the script because the ecological diversity of the Driftless region brought the filmmakers to unfamiliar places.

“We wrote stuff so that we would have an idea, an outline, but everywhere [the filmmakers] went they had never been before,” Howe said. “It was a completely unscripted adventure, and I think that’s why it worked so well.”

The unscripted nature of the film helped the audience identify with Stenstrom and Nelson, putting the audience in their shoes as they explored the Driftless region.

Associate Professor of Communication Studies Thomas Johnson is a board member of Sustainable Driftless. Along with helping to bring the film to Luther, Johnson worked in a post-production role on the film, watching rough cuts and giving feedback to the editor. He believes the film is in a unique position to be able to reach the students at Luther.

Since its release, the film has been used in environmental studies classes to educate students about the environment surrounding Luther.

“It really touches on a variety of topics that are fitting for folks on campus,” Johnson said. “We like to see students who are interested in environmental studies, in biology, in journalism, and in film.”

Professor of English David Faldet said the film increased his appreciation for his naturalenvironment.

“It brings the unique, world-class attributes of the Driftless alive in high definition and richly saturated color,” Faldet said. “Even as a person who knows and loves the Driftless, I walked away with a more intense appreciation of the place I call home.”

The film has garnered attention from critics since its release in September of 2018, winning or being selected as a finalist at numerous film festivals and awards shows around the world. In August, “Decoding the Driftless” was awarded “Best Picture” and “Best Cinematography” for a documentary film at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. It has also been selected as a finalist for the Florence Film Awards.

Photo courtesy of the “Decoding the Driftless” trailer
“Decoding the Driftless” has won awards at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival.
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