A wholly unique people from the Pyrenees Mountains on the border of France and Spain, the Basques played a subtle but deeply meaningful role in the creation of the American West. Arriving by train through an idiosyncratic network of boarding houses, Basque immigrants dominated the sheep herding industry for much of the early 20th century, despite aggressive villification by established Anglo-Saxon settlers. Once ubiquitous, Basque-American culture is drastically shifting as immigration has tapered off during the past three decades. Disappearing West
is an hour-long essay film that investigates the visual history of the Basque Diaspora and traces the distinct marks that the culture has left on the landscape: scattered social clubs, abandoned cabins and livestock bridges, and thousands of peculiar arborglyphs—elaborate graffiti carved into the aspen trees along former grazing routes by Basque shepherds.
Basques are often described as exotic and “untouched by time”, a mysterious culture nestled in the heart of Europe, but largely unaffected by the countries which geographically enclose them. Most historical accounts of the Western United States portray Basque-Americans solely as the appendage of a quaint cowboy tradition. These views undermine the complexity and impact of Basque history and culture, both in America and their native Europe. Our goal in making this film is use interviews, intimate footage of the modern Basque community, archival photos, and thoughtfully considered animation to bring to light the contributions of a frequently overlooked group, and in doing so, recover a forgotten history.
This project aims to provide not only critical visual and sociological documentation of a specific group of people, but act as a meditation on larger themes of loneliness, the elusiveness and fluidity of the concept of home, the tension between expectation and reality, and the pervasive desire to reconstruct a familiar culture in an alien environment. Much of the film will address the Basque-American relationship to the sheep herding industry, which offers a uniquely poetic framework for their immigrant experience: the shepherd’s journey driving sheep from their winter homes to fertile summer grazing lands is an uncanny analogue for his own difficult transition from the Basque Country to the Western United States. As much as possible, the travel required for this film will mimic the same geographical routes taken by early immigrants to the West, directly re-tracing their migration by train and following former sheep herding trails. Our hope is that this method will offer insight into their reactions to what they witnessed along their journey. Perhaps in making this film, we can provide our audience with disarmingly personal views of how immigration in the United States has and has not changed over the past century.