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Colby, Kansas, 1933, America is beginning to recover from the Great Depression but while recovery is beginning, the Great Plains, from the panhandle of Texas to western Nebraska is battling an even greater foe and much less forgiving one; nature. Rising out of the dust came two men, Ray Garvey and John Kriss, who saw that the ground in western Kansas and eastern Colorado was fertile and capable of raising wheat and did so conquering the odds, all at a time when the world needed more than just food, it needed hope. Written by
Quiet fields of wheat, corn, Milo, dust and cattle are what the casual observer of the Western Kansas landscape might notice. The real story of life in this part of the country must be considered on a much greater scale and on a longer time line than a trip down Interstate 70 can afford. That is what comes across in the recent documentary, Harvesting The High Plains, from Director and Cinematographer Jay Kriss and his partner Sydney Duvall.
When I was asked to attend the premier of this film, I had some expectations. There are some images that come up when you say the words dust bowl and documentary such as Time/Life photos of dirty children and tired faces. You would expect the story of a hard time in a harsh climate. That is only some of what you get with Harvesting the High Plains. There is quite a bit of stock footage in the film, but those images are not the ones you would expect to see and they are skillfully blended with new black and white footage shot in and around Colby, Kansas and in fields in Southern Nebraska. At the start of the film I was looking for what was new and what was old, but I stopped trying about two minutes after it began as the story drew me in.
This is not just a Dustbowl story, but also a conversation between two men that were determined to make their farming operation a success despite the conditions. Ray Garvey and John Kriss wrote thousands of letters to each other over the years. Those letters have survived and are the meat of this story. With the compelling mix of voice actors reading the actual letters and the wonderful narration of Mike Rowe, we get to listen in on a conversation from decades past that sounds surprisingly like what you might here from area farmers who are right now dealing with one of the driest years in recent memory.
I live in Colby, Ks, but I did not grow up here and do not have an agricultural background. What I do have is a deep appreciation of filmmaking and storytelling. There is more of a cinematic quality to Harvesting than to many documentaries that I have seen. There are the obligatory interviews with experts and farmers, who remember what the conditions were like in the 1930s, but these only help us to understand the determination and the will of the people involved and serve to drive the story along.
If I were to give any criticism of this project, it would be that the film should be longer. There are decades of information that are packed into a short one-hour format that was imposed upon the filmmakers in order to fit the broadcasting schedule for Kansas Public Television. With a little more space to absorb the wealth of information included, Harvesting would be an even more enjoyable viewing experience. As it is, it is very much worth seeing.
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