By Don Simpson | August 19, 2011
Sometimes I wonder if my quirky tendency to not read press releases or reviews (or watch trailers) prior to watching films is a bad idea. Sure, the shock and awe of being totally surprised by a film’s content can be a very good thing; but in the case of Nick Brandestini’s documentary, I admit I was just a little confused once the film started playing.
Contrary to my initial assumption, Darwin has absolutely nothing to do with the infamous English naturalist Charles Darwin (On the Origin of Species); Brandestini’s documentary actually refers to the town of Darwin, California (which is named after Darwin French). Located in the desolate nether-regions on the east side of the Sierra Nevada (not too far from Death Valley), the ex-mining community of Darwin boasts a population of 43. Brandestini wrangles 30 or so of Darwin’s residents to tell their tales to his camera and — within minutes — it becomes quite obvious that the secluded locale of Darwin has attracted a very unique and eclectic collection of people. Darwin also touches upon the town’s history, dating back to when Darwin’s mine — as well as its brothels and saloons — was still active (a period of time that at least one resident refers to as the “glory days”).
Brandestini relies heavily upon the townspeople’s wackiness to drive his documentary, and there is no denying their cinematic appeal. It seems as though most (if not, all) Darwinians have come to the desert to hide from something — whether it be their checkered past, an all-too-judgmental mainstream society, legitimate employment, or life in general. Darwin appears to be a self-imposed penal colony of sorts where its constituents are able to live out a life sentence of self-enforced exile from mainstream society, yet this seclusion simultaneously allows them to enjoy near-absolute freedom. Together they have created a Utopian society of Libertarian proportions in which everyone enjoys their personal freedoms without much judgment from their neighbors or pestering by the police. They expect their government to provide them with the basic necessities of electricity, water and unemployment checks; otherwise the people of Darwin exist as far “off the grid” as humanly possible. With no mayor, city council or local law enforcement to speak of, Darwin’s only form of political hierarchy appears to be a small panel of residents who occasionally gather together to debate the state of their water supply. Apparently all of the townspeople are armed to the gills — and at least half way to crazy — so criminals steer clear of Darwin. Maybe Darwin has evolved beyond Libertarianism, maybe this is a town of anarchists?