Documentary to Debut about Colorado "Eco-Cowboy"

01:36PM May 05, 2014
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New documentary has been described as "Shakespeare on the high plains."
By: Raelynn Ricarte, The Dalles Chronicle

In two weeks, Maggie Hanna of The Dalles, Ore., will have some of the most painful moments of her childhood — and some reflecting bravery and determination — splashed across the big screen in two major U.S. cities.

"It's surreal to have other people view your life in 73 minutes," she said. "But I really like the end product — it's like a beautiful home video — and I hope everyone in the audience can find something meaningful to take away. "

The documentary "Hanna Ranch: One Cowboy's Fight for Family and Land" will air May 16 in New York City and Los Angeles, and be distributed by Gravitas Ventures on Amazon, iTunes and other digital formats about one week later.

The film, produced by Listen Productions of Denver, Colo., has been described by James Redford, a director and son of legendary film star Robert Redford, as "Shakespeare on the high plains."

The Huffington Post calls it, "Part homage, part love letter, part wakeup call."

The movie was the 2014 documentary selection of the Starz Denver Film Festival and the Durango Independent Film Festival in 2014.

Front and center in the film is Maggie's father, Kirk Hanna, and his quest to protect range land in Colorado from development and bad grazing practices. He was dubbed the "eco-cowboy" and featured in the book Fast Food Nation as a respected pioneer in Holistic Resource Management practices. He sat on numerous environmental boards and served as president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association.

Also playing a prominent role is his wife, Ann, who was thrust into survival mode by her husband's suicide, which happened six days before Christmas in 1998. Her struggle to keep the homestead intact for daughters, Maggie, then 9, and Emy, 7, is portrayed with her quiet dignity and strength of character.

In addition to financial challenges, Ann faced family struggles as Kirk's older brother, Steve, pushed to split the family ranch.

Mother and daughters agreed not to watch the final version of the film together because they didn't want to influence each other's critique.

At the darkest hour after her father's death, Maggie said Jay Frost, his half-brother and close friend, stepped in to help her mother manage the ranch. She said other community members reached out as well. Jim Hicks, a Wyoming cowboy and close family friend, came to Colorado to be a pall bearer at Kirk's funeral — and stayed as the ranch foreman for the next 10 years.

"There were so many people who stepped up to take care of us," she said.

Maggie finds healing from her father's death to be an ongoing process, one that she expects will have new "milestones" as she marries, has children and experiences other memorable occasions that he is not around to celebrate.

Kirk took his life as struggles with depression, family, and conserving agricultural lands continued to mount, leaving him with a feeling of hopelessness on battlefronts that looked unwinnable.

"It has been very difficult for people to talk about my father's death," said Maggie. "There is a huge stigma around mental health and we hope to start that discussion by sharing our story."

She loves it when people come forward with stories about her father, either as a friend or a visionary who wasn't afraid to shake things up if it meant better land management.

"At this moment, I feel very close to him and I am still learning from him," said Maggie.

She is now 24 and Emy is 22 and both have graduated from college. Because the documentary was six years in the making, Maggie said producer/director Mitch Dickman and cinematographer Zachary Armstrong became part of their family.

In fact, the two men are featured with the Hanna women on their 2013 Christmas card.

"We wrapped things up in 2012 and I kind of wondered if I would see them again — and luckily we have stayed in touch and talk regularly," she said. "They have just become good family friends."

The idea for the documentary was launched in 2008 after the Rocky Mountain News, now out of circulation, published a Sunday feature about Ann, as a single mother and rancher, staying in agriculture 10 years after her husband's death.

Because Kirk had been high profile in the leadership role of bringing ranchers and environmental groups together to shape a landscape preservation model for the western United States, Dickman was interested in doing a follow-up on the family.

"He knocked on the door and said, 'We'd like to do a film and there will be actresses that play you three,' and my mom said, 'That's the silliest thing I've ever heard,'" said Maggie.

Ann then rolled out the coverage that had already been given to Kirk's cause and Dickman realized that there was a bigger story to tell. The family agreed and offered to share their story, on the grounds that the film would have educational value or create positive impact.

"It's an ugly, hairy, story so you had to want to do it to make a difference," said Maggie. "We all think about it as a labor of love because a lot of the time, they (Dickman and Armstrong) weren't getting paid."

She said the story line evolved as events unfolded on the ranch and went from an environmental angle to the challenges of growing food for a nation and, finally, the family dynamics that were playing out.

Ann and Steve eventually divided the ranch, including land, equipment and cattle.

After Maggie and Emy reached adulthood, Ann began to joke that they had 10 years to go out and see the world. After that time, she said they needed to come home and take over the ranch so she could retire. And the clock is ticking.

"I don't think she'll hold us to that, but she gave us the opportunity to go away from home with some expectations in the future that we would need to take the reins, which is a gift and a challenge all itself," said Maggie.

She has taken advantage of that gift by spending six months in New Zealand and now a year in Oregon, where she works for Mid-Columbia Economic Development District as a RARE (Resource Assistance for Rural Environments) volunteer through AmeriCorps, a national service organization.

"I am really grateful for my opportunity in Oregon because it has taught me at a base level that more often than not, there are not right or wrong ways to do things, just different ways" said Hanna.

Her time in The Dalles will end in August and Hanna is getting ready for the responsibility of running a ranch and finding ways to make it profitable enough to support her and her sister's future families.

She has been accepted into the prestigious Texas Christian University Ranch Management Program in Fort Worth, following in her dad's footsteps, and plans to live with Emy for one year. Her sister is currently working for a major pharmaceutical company and Maggie said they will have the opportunity to "see how well we get along" in close quarters.

"We know what we are getting into," she said.

The challenge they have to work out is how to make a ranch that now has 200 cow-calf pairs on about 6,000 acres provide more income. Maggie doesn't rope well, or have mechanical skills, but she does understand how the operation works and has been included in the decision-making process since a young age.

"For a long time after my dad died we were in survival mode as far as a business structure and I think there are things we can do now to be a little more proactive and profitable," said Maggie.

She said, through all the adversity, the bond between the Hanna women grew stronger, and their mother taught her and Emy the value of boosting morale with laughter during hard times.

"We are all best friends," she said. "I'm lucky that I have a place to call home. I'm not sure that I'm ready to be there yet, but I love being from a place and having the ability to go back to that place."