Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa

In case you haven’t noticed yet, at least one Techyum contributor has been making a pig of himself with the excellent selection of films at the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, which opens this Saturday at the Roxie Cinema in SF.
Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa is the most thought provoking of the dozen or so films I’ve screened for the festival. It concerns a group of people living on “The Mesa,” a remote section of northern New Mexico where there’s no power grid, no land lines, no mobile phone service, no internet, no water, no police force — nothing except a few hundred residents who have chosen to live in the middle of nowhere, the serious middle of nowhere — my San Francisco friends’ cracks about Oakland notwithstanding.
The Mesa’s residents truck in everything and truck out their waste; they fight extremes of weather, an acute shortage of drinking water and a total lack of bathing water. They make their own laws: as Mesa resident Dreadie Jeff puts it: “Out here we don’t dial 911, we dial .357.” So who the hell lives there? A bewitching assemblage of die-hard gun-nut rednecks, radical libertarians, haunted veterans, homeless teens, punks and hardcore hippies. They live there for a variety of reasons, but what they have in common is a willingness to give up all, or almost all, of the typical conveniences of modern life in return for what they consider to be freedom, as close to absolute as you can get nowadays.
For some, it’s politically motivated: For instance, a crazed Dreadie Jeff, an ex military dude, stirringly recites his military oath to protect THE CONSTITUTION of these United States against all enemies foreign AND DOMESTIC!!! as part of a screed against the Bush Administration. For others, it’s about living in concert with the land, or getting the hell away from the noise and bustle of modern life. Insofar as documentaries have plots, Off the Grid has a thick one — things get very interesting when a group of punks called the Nowhere Kids are accused of — and then confess to — breaking into Mesa residents’ houses to steal food and other goods. Viewers get to find out firsthand: How does law get enforced on the Mesa? You’d be surprised.
Much more tragic is the terrifying assault on the Mesa by law enforcement, which seeks to disable the one indigenous industry out there — the growing of marijuana. On the Mesa, weed is currency, traded for food, water, diesel, and just about anything else one might need. The feds don’t like this, and one longtime Mesa resident, Dean Maher is the victim of a bust where his house ended up catching fire — some sources say he lit his pot plants on fire in a panic, and the flames got out of control. Regardless, as Maher and the other Mesa residents tell it, he was arrested and held without warrant while the cops prevented him from rescuing his 12 dogs locked inside. Particularly telling are the local news reports that tell an improbable alternate version: Maher lit his home on fire in a drug craze, not caring that his beloved dogs were inside. Robbed of his family, Maher picks up and starts over, and his story becomes a mournful Mesa legend, his bravery inspirational and his troubles a cautionary tale.
Off the Grid lets the Mesa residents tell their own stories; the dignity, insight and power they show is nothing short of stunning. It’s an amazing flick, and not to be missed if you’re interested in the many and challenging alternative ways of living modern life.
Evening shows of Off the Grid at the Roxie in San Francisco are Monday, October 1 and Sunday, October 7, with a matinee on Saturday October 6.
Image courtesy of the Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa MySpace page.

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