“It took us months to gain people’s trust, because they all thought we were feds,” says Rick Rowley. “And then we discovered part of the way through that was not unreasonable.”
Rowley is talking about making “American Patriot: Inside the Armed Uprising Against the Federal Government.” The new “Frontline” documentary explores the background of the Bundy family and how Ammon Bundy and his supporters came to stage an armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016.
Oregonians will recall many of the details of the Malheur refuge occupation and what followed. But “American Patriot” ends with some startling footage that hasn’t been seen before now, of FBI agents posing as documentary filmmakers to gain access to the Bundy family.
“I can’t really say anything at all about the sourcing” of the footage, says Rowley, who wrote and produced “American Patriot.”
“The FBI had no comment on it, except to ask that we disguise the voices” of the agents who we hear pretending to be filmmakers working for the fictional “Longbow Productions.”
The FBI fake film crew made contact with the Bundys shortly after the Bunkerville standoff in 2014, in which Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, his family, and a large group of supporters challenged armed agents from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management who had come to remove Bundy’s cattle. Bundy owed more than $1 million grazing fees and fines related to the use of federally owned land.
Rather than risk violence in a confrontation with some of the armed supporters of the Bundys, federal authorities decided to de-escalate the standoff near Bundy’s ranch, and withdrew.
The Bundys claimed victory, and the government standing down helped fuel the rise of other anti-government militia groups.
As “American Patriot” points out, the supposed documentary footage taken by FBI agents has become part of the federal case against the Bundys and some of those who joined them in the Bunkerville standoff.
Rowley says the FBI pretending to be journalists “makes our work much more difficult,” and could put reporters’ lives in danger if they’re covering criminal organizations who are aware that the FBI is collecting supposed journalism to use in court.
“It also raises first amendment issues about the separation of the government and an independent free press,” Rowley says. “Journalists shouldn’t pose as law enforcement, and law enforcement shouldn’t pose as journalists.”
In addition, defense attorneys have raised concerns, Rowley says, over what they view as an attempt to interrogate clients without lawyers present.
Rowley’s previous films include a documentary about the white nationalist militia movement, including neo-Nazis and the far-right wing of the Tea Party.
“When I saw Bunkerville and Malheur, I thought I was doing a reprise of the same story,” says Rowley. “But I found a more nuanced picture below the surface. The anti-government militia movement is very different from the militia movements of the ’90s that seemed to be the template for it.”
There’s some overlap between groups whose foundation is Christian identity politics and white nationalism, Rowley says, and the anti-government militias that support the Bundys.
“Many of the militias we talked to around Josephine County and other parts of Oregon see themselves as defenders of a dying rural America, and understand their populist politics in that way,” Rowley says.
Rowley is based in New York, and he says that for people in urban locations, “rural America often is incomprehensible and completely opaque to us.”
Once he got out and met people in rural areas, Rowley says he was surprised that their political beliefs didn’t fall into strictly defined left or right-wing categories.
“I would be interviewing a militia member from Josephine County, who would say his biggest influences were Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning,” Rowley says.
Though the 41-day Malheur refuge standoff ended in February 2016, filming on “American Patriot” began in September. “And we’ve been working on it straight through until yesterday,” Rowley said on Tuesday.
In addition to content available from other sources, “American Patriot” includes original interviews with Ammon Bundy. The conversations were filmed first while Bundy was in jail in Multnomah County, where he, his brother Ryan Bundy, and five co-defendants stood trial, and were found not guilty on federal conspiracy and gun charges.
Rowley and his collaborators also interviewed Ammon Bundy in the Nevada prison where he, Ryan Bundy, Cliven Bundy and others await trial on federal charges stemming from the Bunkerville standoff.
Others interviewed include Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center, The Oregonian/OregonLive reporter Maxine Bernstein, and founders of the Pacific Patriot Network.
“The biggest thing that sets this film apart,” Rowley says, “is that we have access to the leadership on both sides,” including Ammon Bundy and his supporters; U.S. Attorney Billy Williams; Greg Bretzing, FBI Special Agent in Charge, 2014-2016; and Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight.
While the number of anti-government groups grew during Barack Obama’s presidency, Rowley isn’t sure what the impact of Donald Trump’s election might be.
“We’re kind of in uncharted territory,” Rowley says. “The conventional wisdom has been when Democrats are in office, militia movements rise, and when Republicans are in office, they recede. But there’s a populism on the left and the right now. It’s unclear.”
What is all too clear, Rowley says, are the breaks in American society.
“The film is really about a clash between different American realities,” he says. “We are more divided as a country than we’ve been at any point in my lifetime.”
“American Patriot: Inside the Armed Uprising Against the Federal Government” airs on “Frontline” at 10 p.m. Tuesday, May 16 on PBS (10.)
— Kristi Turnquist