‘Great Basin’ Zooms in on Forgotten Lands, Need for Freedom

Slow, absorbing doc gives urban audiences look at little-seen communities

“These are strong and resilient people. They don’t see themselves as a charity case.”

With that one sentence, New York-based director Chivas DeVinck showed he had more understanding of the residents of White Pine County, Nevada than most of the Denver audience for his film, “The Great Basin.”

The Great Basin | Official Trailer | Circle Collective

In 2016, DeVinck was taking the scenic road from California to New York along the “Loneliest Road in America,” middle Nevada’s US-50. After chatting with the locals at a gas station near the Utah state line in Ely, Nevada, he knew he wanted to return to tell their story.

“And these are people who are desperate to have their stories told.”

And so he returned in January and February of 2020, to let them tell their stories.

Most prominently featured is Hank Vogler, a local sheep rancher, leading a decades-long fight against a pipeline that would take much of the state’s water down to Las Vegas. It’s a battle that still rages today.

It’s at a meeting of the local water coalition that we meet Delaine Spilsbury, a Shoshone Tribe elder in her 80s.

Later, she tells us about how her mother was orphaned when her village was massacred and about the Indian Schools, where it was hoped the Indians could be made to forget they were Indians.


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Ely hosts a few of the state’s legal brothels, places where missionaries gently try to share their message with the working girls. The county commission debates repealing a largely-ignored pet licensing law but also has to work with the city.

Nearby McGill boasts crusty old-timers and a major Polish-owned mine. White Pine hosts the New Age School of the Natural Order, but is also home to a state prison with an execution chamber.

The same people can be protective of their water and dismissive of climate change. Vogler chats with his Basque sheepherders in fluent Spanish and is married to a Chinese woman. Spilsbury isn’t tucked away on a reservation, but is active in the anti-pipeline coalition.


Only one scene rang false in its inclusion and placement. It starts with a shot of a “No Shooting” sign, which is, naturally, riddled with bullet holes. From there, Hank goes on a short disquisition on the 2nd Amendment and how it’s kept us free.

The scene struck me as disconnected from the rest of his narrative.

I asked DeVinck about that scene after the screening. He said that it was intended to fit in with a general theme about freedom, but also how Hank’s conception of that freedom was rooted in nostalgia and memories of his youth.

“To some extent, I think that’s true for all of us.”

It’s certainly true for Spilsbury, who wistfully recalls the more wide-open White Pine County of her youth.

The movie can be slow and uneven. It opens near Baker, Nevada, at the Lehman Caves, where the tour guide douses the lights and explains that the caves’ inhabitants have evolved to match their environment.

The film’s closing returns to Baker, and the new-agey School of the Natural Order. Neither has much to do with the main subject, but we spend the first and last few minutes with each.

Cinematographer Yoshio Kitagawa lets his camera linger over the vast, beautiful basin-and-range country, sometimes a little too long, but it shows the emptiness of the place.

As Hank is filling up his truck and the reserve tanks, he says if you get into trouble, there’s no 7-Eleven across the street to help out. It echoes something writer Mark Hemingway said five years ago about similarly rural Oregon:

“If your car breaks down on the wrong road in the wrong time of the year at the wrong time of night in four feet of snow, you might die. People out there have more of a nineteenth-century naturalist view of nature, where you have to respect it and also fear and loathe it when necessary.”

The freedom that DeVinck noticed is what makes life in such a place tolerable and rewarding. If you need to be resourceful to make a living, or even to survive, you need to have the freedom to use those resources as you see fit.

Otherwise, what’s the point?

And there are many ways to lose that freedom, whether it’s to distant bureaucrats imposing land-use policies on land they’ve never seen, or the Southern Nevada Water Authority using tax money to buy up your neighbors’ ranch land for the water rights.

My own state of Colorado recently saw urban and suburban voters put ranchers’ cattle at risk to reintroduce wolves, for instance, and the rural areas of the state increasingly feel dictated to by Denver and Boulder.

In the post-screening discussion, one audience member expressed surprise at how inclusive the people there were. I was the only one who laughed at the shot-up sign. And a question about donating the film’s proceeds to the community prompted DeVinck’s observation about their strength and dignity.

A lot of urbanites who’ve never been to the middle of the country could learn something about freedom, with all the messy inconsistencies it entails.

Joshua Sharf is a Senior Fellow for the free-market Independence Institute, focusing on public pension and public finance issues. By day a web developer, he has also found time to run for the state legislature, be a state editor for WatchdogWire, write for the Haym Salomon Center, and produce a local talk radio show. He has a Bachelors in Physics from U.Va., and a Masters in Finance from the University of Denver, and lives in Denver with his wife, Susie and their son, David. His work also appears frequently in Complete Colorado and American Greatness.

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