Isolation, escape, depression, violence, drug addiction, gender issues, water rights, loneliness, and California mining history collide in this profile of Darwin, a desolate Death Valley desert town where 35 people live in tenuous peace.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t the work of a desert-residing Californian who’d traveled through the town repeatedly. Instead, it was Nick Brandestini, who lives in Switzerland. He recently answered a few questions about his film called Darwin from his home in Europe.
As a Switzerland-based filmmaker, what drew you to a place like Darwin?
I have visited the USA many times and have always been fascinated by your country. On a drive through the Mojave Desert, I was drawn to the ghost towns of the area and became curious about its inhabitants, past and present. Who are the people who live in such a seemingly inhospitable place? Why do they live here? I knew then and there that I wanted to make a documentary about such a place. Together with my coproducers Sandra Ruch and Taylor Segrest, we researched different “living ghost towns” and finally decided on Darwin.
Of course, the town’s name immediately caught our attention. With the film I am hoping to give people a chance to get to know the “crazies of Darwin” — people they would otherwise never know about, and perhaps be inclined to pre-judge if they did.
Have you seen the documentary about the Salton Sea? This reminded me of that because it takes a quirky place and reveals all of the interesting residents who call it home. How did you determine what the driving stories were? Did anyone end up entirely on the cutting room floor?
I have seen the Salton Sea documentary and really enjoyed it. Although it is quite a different film, it was in fact one of the inspirations for Darwin.
From the beginning it was clear that Monty Brannigan would be one of the stars of the film. This grumpy yet likable old man has lived in Darwin for 55 years and has experienced the wild and violent mining days firsthand. Susan, who is the town’s postmaster and basically the only one in town who has a regular job, was another natural choice. The unconventional Jones family was the first group I interviewed. Ryal, Connie Jones’ daughter, was in the process of a sex change. Being around people pushed Ryal over the edge, as he says in the film, and moving to Darwin was a reaction to that.
As with any documentary, there were a few people who ended up on the cutting room floor, mainly for timing reasons. I plan to put those scenes on the DVD as “special features.”
Was it hard to get access to people? Was there anyone who wouldn’t speak to you?
Naturally, the Darwin residents were at first a bit skeptical of the project. Many of them are in Darwin because they like to live in peace and not be “bothered” by the outside world. Slowly they warmed up to the idea. Still, there were some that did not want to be filmed, which is completely understandable.
Do they really seem happy there, or is depression the more common emotion?
I would say they have their ups and downs, maybe a bit more than the average person. But I would not say that depression is the more common emotion. I think all of them truly like being there.
What do you predict Darwin will be like in 10 more years?
It really is an endangered community. The fragile water situation, the lack of young people moving in, the nearby Navy base — these are all potential problems for the town’s survival. However, the town’s death has been predicted many times in the past, and it’s still here. Darwin seems indestructible.
Nick Brandestini’s Darwin is scheduled to screen on Wednesday, February 2, 8 p.m., and Thursday, February 3, 8:05 a.m., at the Metro 4, and on Friday, February 4, 4 p.m., at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The schedule is subject to change, so see independent.com/sbiff for updates.