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Western Sonoma Gothic

See the Russian River through the eyes of a foreigner in Ian Olds’s new film, Burn Country

 

A newly arrived Afghani journalist, cultish Guerneville townies, and a super stony James Franco: Somehow they all come together for Sebastopol native Ian Olds in his new film, Burn Country, costarring Melissa Leo and opening December 9. With its dark but often humorous look at the rough-around-the-edges characters who populate the banks of the Russian River, it’s very possibly the best film depiction of a deeply weird part of our state.

This film clearly takes elements from your 2009 documentary, The Fixer. What made you want to turn that work into a fictional film?
In the process of making [The Fixer], one of the [Afghani translators] we were working with ended up making it to Sweden, but he found himself in an existential crisis: He hadn’t thought much beyond just getting out of Afghanistan. And that became the inspiration of this film. As we were writing it, we wanted to invert the familiar dynamic of a western journalist going to a war-torn country: It’s an Afghan [played by Dominic Rains] reporting on America.

And what a place for him to land, in that crusty, remote area around Monte Rio and Guerneville. Talk about a culture shock.
The most obvious move is, if it’s an immigrant story, coming to the U.S. and facing red-state racism. But it’s more interesting placing him somewhere that’s ostensibly welcoming and open-minded—yet even that doesn’t free him from his essential dilemma, which is: How do you find purpose outside of war? 

The film has a real noir vibe, too.
Part of the idea was evoking this place of tremendous possibilities and openness, but where there’s also this element of people going out to seed deep in the shadows of the redwoods. Those contradictions interested me growing up: these strange outbreaks of violence that seem totally incongruous with the openness and beauty of the place. It’s this very specific version of the California dream: It’s as far west as you can go, but then there are also these shadows a little deeper in the redwoods.

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco 

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