Winner of the 35th Annual Big Muddy Film Festival John Michaels Award
Crab Orchard calls itself “a unique place to experience nature.” As the only wildlife refuge in the United States whose mission includes industry and agriculture alongside conservation and recreation, Crab Orchard claims a harmonious balance between uses and users that strike many as incompatible. This story of harmony is maintained through the production and enforcement of physical, visual, and political boundaries — boundaries that, once crossed, quickly dissolve. This essayistic documentary maps the filmmaker’s discovery of Crab Orchard’s complex and hybrid nature. When a request by a security guard to put away the camera leads to a surprise visit by the FBI, the filmmaker begins a journey to uncover the refuge’s history and understand its contradictory present. Crab Orchard’s status as a contaminated refuge emerges less as an exception and more an example of the power and perils of “nature” as we understand it today. From its use by historic Native Americans as a source of food, its continued role in an economically vulnerable region, and the use of its polluted lake as a water source, the film explores themes of invisibility, loss, and shared but profoundly unequal risk. Assembled from documents, found footage, and conversations with activists, writers, and local residents, the film meditates on the persistence of history, the creation of knowledge, the limits of representation, and the commonplace of environmental hazard. “Around Crab Orchard” ultimately argues for forms of storytelling, image-making, and activism that cross existing conceptual boundaries to respond to the full complexity of the social and ecological landscape.