Mine fight documentary earns praise

Bryan Wells became an unlikely star in the production of the documentary “Paradise,” by Clyde Park filmmaker and photographer Erik Petersen. Wells supports mining yet joined forces with conservationists to oppose exploratory drilling near his Emigrant, Mont., home.

It took 52 years for Bryan Wells to return to the top of Emigrant Peak in Montana.

Although the 10,960-foot mountain was much the same, seeing the country through the eyes of a 64-year-old man versus a 12-year-old boy was significant.

“It meant a lot to me,” he said. “I’ve been living in the shadow of this peak since I was 9 years old. I’ve hunted elk and deer with my dad and friends on it, chased cows all over its sides with my neighbor. I’ve been involved with the B-47 jet bomber memorial. It’s sacred ground in a lot of ways.”

Wells made the trek, after dieting to lose a few pounds, at the urging of Clyde Park filmmaker Erik Petersen. In 2017 Petersen began tracking the push by local businesspeople, conservationists and outdoor groups to halt exploratory drilling in Emigrant Gulch by a Canadian mining company. The film he eventually produced, called “Paradise,” features Wells and has been chosen as a finalist for the 2019 Banff Mountain Film Competition.

“Bryan, he’s great,” Petersen said. “He’s such a genuine, thoughtful guy.

“He’s a big part of the reason (the film is) doing so well.”

Group effort

The festival in Banff, Alberta, Canada, was Saturday and Sunday. “Paradise” was shown Saturday with other films beginning at 8 p.m. in a sold-out theater. Petersen calls the festival his “ultimate goal” when he makes a film, since it’s a “premier festival for the outdoor genre of films.” Wells and his wife, Sally, planned to attend, even though neither of them likes to travel.

“My wife never goes anywhere, ever, and she’s excited about it,” Wells said.

Yet he is not entirely comfortable being in the limelight. Wells worries that the many other people involved in protesting the proposed gold mine — which eventually led to a mining ban in the area — are not getting adequate credit for all of their work.

“It always bothers me that people get the impression that I was a big player in this movement,” Wells said. “A lot of people got this done,” including the state’s congressional delegation and former Secretary of the Department of Interior, Ryan Zinke.

“I love the fact that we could all put our differences aside and work toward a common goal,” Wells said. “That means more to me than stopping an industrial gold mine.”

At the film screenings in Banff, a panel of judges decided which pictures would go on to join the annual Banff Mountain Film Festival, which tours throughout the country. The judges are looking for variety, as well as content, which means that even a top film may not get chosen.

“Regardless of whether ‘Paradise’ makes it on tour, it’s a feather in the hat” for the film to be a finalist, Petersen said.


Starting out in photojournalism, Petersen worked at the Livingston Enterprise and Bozeman Daily Chronicle before launching his freelance career seven years ago. Now 44, he’s established in his profession enough to have made a name for himself in a competitive photography market, focusing his lens most often on outdoor activities from hunting and fishing to skiing and trail running.

“I miss that daily deadline, shooting every day no matter what,” he said. “Now that I’m on my own it’s all self-driven, it takes a lot of motivation,” especially during the fall when he’d rather be out chasing pheasant with his bird dog.

Petersen’s first stab at documentary filmmaking resulted in “The Hard Way,” which followed 89-year-old Missoula runner Bob Hayes as he trained for a 50K ultramarathon. Since then he’s made three more films, including one on the unusual sport of skijoring, where horses pull skiers around a course.

“I’ve really enjoyed the process of learning a new skill set,” Petersen said. “Film projects are a fun way to mix it up at this point in my career.”


The hard part comes when editing, especially with Petersen’s latest project that involved two years of filming. To make a 20-minute film he had to carve out hours and hours of video. Cutting scenes that are gems, when they don’t add to the overall story arc, is “one of the hardest parts of this process,” he said.

Wells can relate. One of his cherished moments during filmmaking was when he sat on the side of a forested mountain with Michelle Uberuaga Zanoni, of the Park County Environmental Council. Petersen wanted them to talk about how they could be so different and disagree on many things but still be friends. Wells is an avowed conservative, fiscally and socially, who supports extractive industries like mining and logging. Uberuaga Zanoni has been a vigorous voice on topics like clean water and air.

“That conversation didn’t make the film, but it was my favorite part,” Wells said.

“She understood we needed to stay nonpartisan,” he said. “That’s one of the big reasons we won. It made our voices so strong when we were everyone.”

French may be contacted at french@billingsgazette.com.

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