A NEW FILM from Portlanders Pam Minty and Alain LeTourneau, Empty Quarter is a documentary in the most literal sense: 16mm film records a dispassionate physical impression of the film's subjects, Southeast Oregon's Lake, Harney, and Malheur Counties. Unlike most documentaries, Empty Quarter makes no effort to educate or inspire. It's just one unexplained, context-less image after another, steady-cam snapshots of the region's industry and landscape.
Some of the scenes presented in Empty Quarter stand on their own: a high-school football team huddling up before a game, all testosterone and nerves, or cowboys at a rodeo, sitting on their saddles on the ground, rocking back and forth, prepping for the arena. But for every quirky scene or beautiful canyon, there's another shot of a parking lot, or an irrigation ditch, or a man sloooowly hosing something off. Minty and LeTourneau achieve a certain matter-of-fact neutrality, refusing to prioritize any one aspect of Southeast Oregon over any other; their unwillingness to interpret the images and information they're presenting forces the audience, however unqualified, to do that work themselves.
In the film's final image, a truck and a combine systematically harvest wheat, trundling side by side until a field is entirely shorn. It's charming in the way of a children's book: Look, Truck and Combine are friends! Look, they're working together! Look, their work is done, now it's time to go home! Sure, Truck and Combine Are Friends was the product of my bored brain trying to impose a narrative on a story-less scene, but that's the point: Beautiful as they often are, these images alone aren't enough, and neither is the solely geographic context. It's like a car-window view of a region, offering swiftly passing glimpses here and there of activities you can't begin to fully grasp. This patient accumulation of images undeniably offers a perspective on the region, but it's an outsider's perspective, a surface-level introduction to a place we're not invited to understand.