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August 29, 2014

Movie Review: A Survey of an Open Space (2013)

Directed by Peat Duggins

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

In 2009, bicyclists Zach Hall and Michaela Duggins (the director’s sister) set off to span the breadth of our nation, from the Mexican border of their hometown of Austin, Texas, to the furthermost reaches of the Alaskan border. Ninety days and 4,000 miles later, both Hall and Duggins successfully completed their mission. What did they learn? Many things, chief among them the fact that America is still a place of wide open spaces and startling beauty. Touching three oceans before reaching the Arctic, the duo saw much natural wonder and desolation.

A Survey of An Open Space is as sparse and beautifully simple a documentary as one could hope for. While it would be expected that this project would have some sort of agenda, it has none other than objectively capturing the trip. It’s ironic that the film’s chief virtue works against the film’s favor: the two protagonists are just too gol-durn good natured and focused! One would think that Hall and Duggins would erupt into a big fight somewhere along the way, but it never occurs. Duggins in particular is so virtuous and pure she verges on the fringes of Pollyanna. Both bicyclists face bad weather and unfortunate situations but greet it with good ol’ fashioned American optimism. The audience is kept waiting for a big blow-up that never occurs … one wonders if any of this was edited out.

The unseen director narrates the film, making lots of keen observations and literary references about travel and man’s place against the landscape. As stated previously, the film has no agenda other than a phrase found on a bumper sticker. “Wilderness = Land of No Use.” Duggins brings up the fact that America is unique among other countries in the notion of preserving untouched land for its own sake. Is this necessarily a good thing? Many miles are desolate stretches of desert, hosting no wildlife, homes or industry. It leaves the big unanswered question of humanity’s use of nature entirely up to the viewer.

Simple and unadorned, with the soundtrack going for extended period of silence sans narration and background music, A Survey of An Open Space is a slow, meditative film for lucky viewers to discover.

A Survey of An Open Space is available both on DVD and VOD. You can visit the official Web site here --

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