TO DUST | JOURNAL ENTRY 1: FILMING TO DUST WITH CINEMATOGRAPHER MICHAEL PIETROBON
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28 Dec 2015 / JOURNAL ENTRY 1: FILMING TO DUST WITH CINEMATOGRAPHER MICHAEL PIETROBON

Life in the Owens Valley is defined and shaped by the austerity of the desert landscape. The snowy Sierra Nevada tower above the western valley floor while The Inyo Mountains to the east catch the famous 20 mile shadows from the setting sun every afternoon. There is no ignoring nature here. It fills both your windshield and your senses even on the shortest drive to the post office or the grocery store. Commuting to Los Angeles means risking whiplash every trip from soaking in the majesty and wonder on both sides of the road whether you’re leaving or coming home. We call it “DUI-EB”… Driving Under the Influence of Extreme Beauty.”

“So like the mountains and the desert and the enveloping sky the lake’s presence is always felt.  It’s alway there, always reminding us of what once was and now is… whether we like it or not.”

Michael Pietrobon

The price for living in The Owens Valley can sometimes be steep though. Days of intense dust storms rise from the Owens Dry Lake to the south and are often enough to cause health alerts encouraging people to remain indoors and avoid the dangerous particulate matter carried north by the high winds into the communities of Keeler, Lone Pine, Independence and beyond. Many of these storms feel like a Hollywood disaster film, raging so violently to make driving nearly impossible between the disappearing lines of the road. To us locals it’s just called “The Lake”. Most of us don’t even see it every day unless you work one of the jobs for Los Angeles DWP or the contracting companies charged with constant and unending dust abatement. “Lake Guys” we call them. Our friends, family members and neighbors who rise before the merciless summer sun every day to battle the remains of a long lost water war.

Composer Bryan Curt Kostors (left) and producer Samantha Young (right) brave the morning cold as cinematographer Michael Pietrobon (center) navigates a drone for aerial footage

Composer Bryan Curt Kostors (left) and producer Samantha Young (right) brave the morning cold as cinematographer Michael Pietrobon (center) navigates a drone for aerial footage / Photo by Jasmine Amara

 

On Sundays the dryers in the local laundromat tumble colorfully all day filled with the freshly washed, bright orange t-shirts of work crews readying for another week flooding the dry, dusty lake bed. Their motto is, “Mud don’t blow.”

So like the mountains and the desert and the enveloping sky the lake’s presence is always felt. It’s alway there, always reminding us of what once was and now is… whether we like it or not.

Some days when the wind is still and the sun is kind it can be a completely transformative place. Utterly silent with shallow saline pools reflecting the surrounding mountains and sky and even large flocks of migrating sea birds lighting upon the water. For all my time in this valley though, I’ve never explored or come to know the Owens Dry Lake as I did filming segments for To Dust.

Living here, you know it’s a big place, but to stand in the middle of such an expansive area knowing where the water levels would have been if things had gone differently provides insight you can’t get from the shore. There were many moments when I found myself just standing and listening, forgetting about cameras and drones and pictures and just being for a while. Time well spent. And time ultimately is what the story of this place is all about. The harsh reality is the scars here will never heal fully and dust will blow forever.

But we have time to make better decisions about our natural resources and the places we live and perhaps protect other desert landscapes from suffering a similar fate. For myself, filming To Dust brought me a deeper empathy for the land and more profound understanding of this place I call home. I hope everyone who experiences To Dust will feel the same.

~ Michael Pietrobon, January 2016

 

5 Comments

  • Al Kostors
    Posted at 23:12h, 12 January Reply

    I know your work as a cinematographer has taken you to projects around the world. This “To Dust” work must have been quiet interesting in the fact it took you to your “escape ” part of California. Did it give you a different outlook on the area? Looking forward to viewing and listening to the finished project.

  • Lisa Roseman
    Posted at 10:00h, 07 March Reply

    Saw/heard your work as part of Laurie Sefton’s Clairobscur Dance Company : Aridity on Saturday at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles. .The film
    is mesmerizing. I thought “what an elegant way of reaching an audience” about this pressing issue. More exposure is needed. It was a brilliant collaboration harnessing the power of the arts.

    • Bryan Curt Kostors
      Posted at 11:05h, 07 March Reply

      Lisa – Thank you so much for your comments on To Dust. I’m so happy you enjoyed seeing the piece! I’m hoping to put together more showings and performances soon, so if you’d like to see it again just keep an eye on out on this website. Thank you again for your kind words!

  • Robin Black
    Posted at 18:22h, 01 May Reply

    I’m disappointed that your piece doesn’t give a more complete view of the lake. It’s not a dead,dry wasteland–parts of it are dry, but there are natural springs and seeps along the western shore that are lush and green all year. Audubon has designated the lake an IBA (Important Bird Area) because it’s a critical stop along the Pacific Flyway. Hundreds of thousands of shorebirds, wading birds and other waterfowl visit the lake every year as a migratory stopover. Seven specific habitats have been created on the lake to meet the needs of all the life that has returned to the lake since 2001 (beginning of mitigation efforts), and especially after 2006 (when LADWP began rewatering the lower Owens River). Is it a problematic, disturbed place? Of course. But it’s also got a stunning variety of life, too. It’s important that people know that as well.

    • Bryan Curt Kostors
      Posted at 19:08h, 01 May Reply

      Hi Robin –

      Thanks for your comments on To Dust. I agree with you, that this work doesn’t tell the complete story of the lake. In creating the work, I decided to focus on specific aspects of the lake’s history, since trying to tell everything from beginning to end is far too large in scope for one 13 minute work.

      As a resident of the Owens Valley, and having family members that were directly involved in creating and maintaining the Long Term Water Agreement, I keep a close eye on how things are improving on the lake, and I’m happy to see how things are going, albeit somewhat behind schedule and with a history of resistance from DWP.

      Overall, I thought it important to bring the story of how Owens Lake came to its current state to a wider audience in Los Angeles, the majority of which is unaware of that history as they make use of Owens Valley water. This awareness, hopfully, can lead to more positive change like the kind we’re beginning to see now.

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