Two years ago, famed documentary filmmaker George Butler was reading The New York Times online and saw a video piece featuring Bells Bend farmer George West — the kind of guy who wears cowboy hats and duster coats for function, drives a 1949 Chevrolet farm truck and sells turnip greens on the honor system right off his land.
The Times piece, titled "The Farmer and the Cranes," noted that West's bottomland has been a refuge for the endangered Whooping Crane. The tallest bird in North America, it has gradually been edged out of its habitat towards extinction. Given the Bells Bend community's ongoing struggle to fend off May Town — the proposed 500-acre mixed-use development very close to his 118-acre farm — the article suggested West has more in common with the regal birds than he would like.
"I've just seen so many other farms destroyed, and now here I am," West says. "I just want to see [the farm] stay one large piece of property."
He grew up in Bells Bend and has been working the land for much of his 70 years, tending the steers on what was once his sister's property (now his niece's) in addition to growing his greens.
"They should let Bells Bend be Bells Bend — rural farm land, peaceful, open," he says. "If May Town is to be, that's all we're going to have, is May Town. What I think is beautiful Bells Bend is going to be gone. And that's really sad. But I guess we can sit in our rocking chairs and think what kind of big mistake we made."
For now, anyway, it looks like May Town is not to be, at least not in its current form. The $4 billion development plan for office, retail and housing was withdrawn from the Metro Council Tuesday night following months and months of previous procedural hurdles. If the proposal is resurrected, it will be smaller than originally envisioned, though still enormous — and probably no more welcome by the intentional rural dwellers of northern Davidson County.
So when Butler — an understated Englishman living stateside, and best known for award-winning documentaries such as Pumping Iron, The Endurance and John Kerry's 2004 campaign film Going Upriver — saw the Times piece about West, it piqued his interest. For one thing, Butler felt a kinship to West because the filmmaker is an avid conservationist. He lives on New Hampshire's Squam Lake, where On Golden Pond was filmed and where gnarled 600-year-old oak trees stand protected from development harm — "one of the best examples of land preservation" in the country, Butler says.
But Butler also had birds on his brain. He was in the throes of producing the first in a trilogy of films about animals in extinction — a documentary about the ivory-billed woodpecker (also known as the "Lord God bird"), which is either critically endangered or extinct because the Southeast's old-growth forests, its habitat, have been destroyed.
Finally, something else drew Butler to the Nashville farmer.
"I probably would never have called this man except for the fact that his name is my grandfather's name," Butler tells the Scene during an interview at the West family farmhouse in Bells Bend. "And I thought it was an omen. My grandfather's name is George West — or was. And I was very fond of him."
West, endearingly unassuming, recounts coming in from the farm one day to find a message from Butler. "I didn't know who he was," the farmer says, amused, as he sits in jeans and work boots across the table from a guy whose professional pursuits have been hailed by some of the world's most prestigious critics.
Butler's message said that he'd like to speak with West after returning from India, where the filmmaker was — and still is — shooting a piece about the Bengal tiger, the second film in the aforementioned trilogy. ("The Bengal tiger is the most charismatic animal on earth, and we're about to lose it forever," Butler says.)
Essentially, Butler sees the fight over Bells Bend as instructive for every city in the country. "There isn't a community in America that I'm aware of that isn't tussling over" a dispute like the one Nashville has seen with May Town, he says.
He's been to Nashville a couple of times over the last two months interviewing residents and poking around the rolling fields of the area. "George is as good an example as anyone," Butler says. "They care about the land. They want it to stay the way it was. And that's being balanced against economic determinism, which is to say that the land must produce money — big money — if it's near a city. I think — and I need to nail this down — the tipping point is really being approached these days where more people are going to be living in cities than in the country all over America. So it's about the urbanization of America."
That said, Butler has also talked with May Town developer Jack May and plans a sophisticated piece of theatrical filmmaking that is balanced in approach.
"The May family has been fairly open to me, and I've made it very clear that I'd like to interview them and talk to them and make sure both sides of the argument are presented," he says of the movie project, which he estimates will encompass 100 hours of video to create a 90-minute doc.
He makes no apologies for his point of view, but neither does he promise a particular outcome. "I am a conservationist, and everyone knows that," Butler says. "I care about land, do a lot of fishing and hiking. And I certainly love Bells Bend. But when you make a film, you never know what's going to happen. What makes a film good is my ability to change point of view instantly."
Of course, there are filmmakers all over the country who are beginning projects that will never see the light of day, mostly for lack of funding. For Butler's 1977 movie Pumping Iron, about Arnold Schwarzenegger and bodybuilding, he approached 3,000 people to finally find 27 investors. "That was a lot of work," says Butler, who gets an exhausted expression talking about it more than 30 years later.
"What this film will likely do is focus a big magnifying glass in Nashville, to see how decisions are made. In saying that, I think a film like this could be extremely good for Nashville because obviously we're going to look for great music and we're going to be involved in a lot of local issues. And I think there are a lot of characters around. And besides, Nashville, the Robert Altman film, is one of my favorites."
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