400 people live literally in the middle of nowhere on fifteen square miles in New Mexico. They have no running water or electricity, no local grocery store or school. For various reasons, these folks have formed their own community "Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa."
Brother and sister writer/director team Jeremy and Randy Stulberg's uniquely American documentary is a fascinating look at an alternative way of life that is its own microcosm of society. The folks who live 'off the grid' are a tightly knit community with their own economic structure, sense of justice, and, even, patriotism.
The women on the Mesa are referred to as mamas and Mama Phyllis, a former psychiatric nurse, is one of our guides into the culture. She discusses the post traumatic stress disorder experienced by many war veterans and explains why so many of them have found their home here. One such, Dreadie Jeff, goes over what appears to be a pile of rusting trash and reveals how one man's junk is another man's household. Another vet, Gecko, believes he is offering his four children the best possible life in their trailer. The kids are home schooled in practicalities and encouraged to pursue their talents. One of the Mesa's older residents, Stan the pig farmer, is also a dad of sorts - he takes in the runaway teens who frequently show up at his door. Virginia, the latest, seems to gain confidence working alongside the kindly farmer, but she doesn't fare as well when she returns to the outside world.
The Mesa's biggest conflict with the outside world comes from the U.S. Government, determined to squash Mesa residents of their main cottage industry. 'If you've got pot, you don't need money,' Dreadie Jeff tells us, but helicopters routinely pass over the area looking for tell tale greenhouse structures. Their pursuit of one resident, Dean Maher, resulted in tragedy when the pot grower tried to destroy his goods and his house caught on fire. When his home's doors blew shut, the Feds wouldn't help the man save the twelve of his fifteen dogs trapped inside. Television newscasters report that Maher closed his animals in purposefully. The tragedy is made history in that greatest of folklore traditions by elder Robbie who writes a song about Dean's travails. After considering the neighborliness and peacefulness of the Mesa community, the Government's attention seems like nothing but bad-natured harassment, pure and simple, although the filmmakers do not indicate whether the Mesa's weed stays on the Mesa..
The Off-Gridders don't need the Government to maintain laws. When a group of teens calling themselves the 'Nowhere Kids' form, they become the chief suspects in a crop of robberies that are unheard of on the Mesa. The problem is dealt with in a way that will probably make you laugh with pleasure.
In a very compact running time (68 minutes), the Stulbergs lay out an entire society and its relationship with the land (beautifully photographed by Reed Morano (Sundance Jury winner "Frozen River") and his team. As they depart the Mesa, Mama Phyllis reflects on her love for Maine, a good man and Gulf War Veteran who refuses treatment for cancer. He, like all these people, will stay with you long after you've seen the film. The Stulbergs's "Off the Grid" is the real deal, an unforgettable piece of Americana. ("Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa" premieres on the Sundance Channel May 20th at 9:35 p.m. Once available on DVD, it would make up a great double bill rental combination with Campbell Scott's 2003 fiction film, "Off the Map.")
Robin gives "Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa" a B+.
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