A Lewiston couple’s documentary film about the 1887 Hells Canyon Chinese massacre will make its world debut in Copenhagen, Denmark next month.Filmmakers Vernon Lott and Jennifer Anderson will screen “Massacred for Gold” at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival Nov. 13. The festival is known for being a maverick when it comes to taking chances in the non-fiction world, says Lott, 38. “We’re very honored.”
Based on the 2009 non-fiction book “Massacred for Gold” by R. Gregory Nokes, the film recounts the murder of more than 30 Chinese miners at Deep Creek, about 60 miles upriver from Lewiston. Lott calls the film an experimental work because it contains no interviews or live people and is shot in black-and-white.
“It’s very slowly paced, which troubles some audiences,” Lott says. “We thought, how do you tell a 125-year-old story? We really wanted to work with the form and function of that.”
The husband-and-wife team thought using actors or scholars to tell the story might take away from the drama. Instead Anderson rewrote the history for a narrator (actor Robert Longstreet, “Pineapple Express”).
“It’s an insider’s take on the story, something a local would tell you in a bar is kind of the way we approached it,” Lott says.
The film was shot in Joseph, Ore., Lewiston and Hells Canyon, which Lott calls a “visually amazing place.” Long shots of the landscape are a major part of the film.
“These empty places echo the history we’re telling,” he says.
The slow pace and black-and-white film harken to a past era, Lott says. No pictures of the slain miners exist. In the massacre scene, the camera almost becomes a character, stalking the canyon where the miners labored. Racial-infused violence is illustrated with xenophobic cartoons from the time.
The modern score for “Massacred for Gold” is by Canadian musician Tim Hecker, whose ambient electronic music has been called eerie, abstract and haunting.
“It was a coup to get him,” Lott says of Hecker, who won a 2012 Juno Award for Electronic Album of the Year, the equivalent of a Grammy in Canada.
In addition, the film was edited by Nigel Galt, who worked as sound editor with Stanley Kubrick on the film “Full Metal Jacket” and as film editor on “Eyes Wide Shut.”
“I’m a huge Kubrick fan, so having him was a huge deal for us,” says Lott, who worked with Galt via Skype and rented a house with him in Seattle for a month to cut the film.
Author Gregory Nokes saw a rough cut of the film last spring in Portland, Ore.
“I really appreciate that Vernon and Jennifer have done this. I feel this accurately portrays the theme of the book. I thought it was a good work,” Nokes says.
Nokes’ book is well into its third printing and recently got a boost in an episode of the Syfy channel television series “Ghost Mine,” which featured him as an expert in Northwest Chinese history.
Nokes says his initial aim in writing the book was to get the massacre story into public awareness.
He’s pleased to see it continue to spread.
Lott says they plan to have a local screening of the film at a date yet to be determined.
“It’s really important that we took so many chances on this film, and to have it be recognized on the international stage, it paid off. The film is not for everyone. For us to get into a festival of this caliber is a really big deal.”