It seemed to be the perfect place for a documentary because it offered a wide range of interesting elements, such as a wild history, a shady reputation, a critical water situation and a close proximity to one of the most secret military bases in the country.
“As the postmaster, I know many things about…” Susan Pimentel begins, then pauses. “I know more about people than I want to know,” she says. She arrived in Darwin, California, in 1998, so she and her husband could take care of his mother. Now, she says, “Wild horses couldn’t drag me out of Darwin.”
Pimentel’s affection for the place isn’t unusual. Or rather, it’s shared by her fellow Darwinians, who number 34. Their reasons are as various as their experiences, and as you come to see in Nick Brandestini’s wonderful documentary, Darwin, the town isn’t quite what it looks like. Screening for DocuWeeks—12 August through 18 at the IFC Center in New York City and 19 August through 25 in Los Angeles—the film attends to surfaces that reveal depths. Long shots of dry plains, dilapidated house trailers, and rusting pickup trucks, indicate that the town is impoverished. But, as Pimentel suggests, life in Darwin is dynamic and complex too. And she means to keep on. On her second week of not smoking when the film was shot, she smiles: “In the meantime, I’m a postal worker and I haven’t killed anyone.”
Pimentel’s sense of humor is of a piece with her sense of perspective. You guess that she’s had a difficult life, if only gauging by her weathered face and the fact that she’s here, in this rough town. As the film notes, the history of Darwin is a lot like that of other western desert towns. Named for the physician, poet, and prospector, Dr. Erasmus Darwin French, it was more or less thriving during the California Gold Rush. The population peaked in 1877, at 3,500: old photos show rudimentary wooden buildings, men in bowler hats, grim women, and wiry miners.
Now, the town’s “only neighbor” is the China Lake Naval Weapons Station, but mostly it seems isolated, without traffic or industry. Abandoned and revived more than once during the 20th century, Darwin developed a bad reputation, as former mechanic Hank Jones puts it, “of hookers and booze and gunfights and miners going berserk and problems with law enforcement.”
With an eye to changing that, Hank and his wife Connie offer bus tours. As he explains that Darwin “has settled down to a normal everyday town now,” the camera shows another broken-down truck. Monty Brannigan remembers what it was like to be a miner, and a hard drinker. His first wife Lucky once shot off the end of her finger. The bullet’s still lodged in the ceiling of their old house, as noted by Myriam LeMarchand (described in a caption as a “bon vivant”), who lives there now. Monty misses the old days. “The miners are completely different people,” he says. “Everybody lives their own life and I thought it was pretty damn good myself.” In 1977, the mine shut down for good, he remembers: “We all lost our jobs and I had to retire. And when I retired, I didn’t really like it. I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
Now, he and his second wife Nancy live in a trailer with a set of Buddhas outside (“Why do I like Buddha?” he asks, “Because he was a philosopher, he was not a religious man”). When he’s not leading the film crew through town—essentially, the post office and store—Monty sits back in a wide armchair, the sleeves cut off of his yellow t-shirt, which commemorates a “Wild Wild West Marathon.” His face framed by glasses and a large white mustache, he doesn’t quite explain how or what he’s survived, but does note that Darwin was a rough place to raise children. “It’s one thing we don’t talk about much,” he says. He hasn’t seen his son in 18 years: “He became a dope-head and I couldn’t stand still for it. My daughter, she’s got her own ways of life and I don’t like ‘em.”
For Hank and Connie Jones, tolerance for different ways of life is what drew them to Darwin. “What I like about the people in Darwin is they accept you for who you are today, not what you used to be, not what you might be, but they accept you for what you are today.” As Hank speaks, Connie nods and sometimes completes his thought. Hank has found a respite from his past (“I had what you’d call a pretty shady past, I used to be a very violent person”) and Connie a new commitment.
Her son Ryal lives nearby with his girlfriend Penny, for now (“There’s nothing out here for us,” he notes, as the camera shows a literally empty expanse). But the stay in Darwin has helped him transition: Ryal is a transgendered female to male who came from San Francisco (where, he says, “I was fired because of who I am”). “Ryal is my stepson, quote ‘daughter,’” says Hank. “He prefers to be called ‘him.’ He gets very upset if you say ‘she.’”
At the same time, Hank—who, with Connie, happens “to believe that Odin is our universal god”—doesn’t hide his own confusion regarding Ryal’s new identification. “With me,” he offers, “A man’s work is, you get outside, you work on the cars, you work on the house, you do most of the heavy lifting and the heavy toting. Ryal’s not into that.” By the same token, Ryal observes changes in himself since he’s been on hormone therapy: “Emotionally, I’m far more impatient than I used to be.” But now that he’s spent time in Darwin. “I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”
Indeed, most of the interviewees in Darwin talk about feeling accepted here, as well as safe. Kathy Goss is a writer who moved from San Francisco after a roommate was murdered (while Goss was away). Horrified that her downstairs neighbors “had hear it happen and had never called the police,” she now conducts a summer music camp for adults in Darwin. “My neighbors here would notice if somebody was getting murdered in my house, I would hope,” she says.
Stories of violence, loss, and disappointment come up more than once in Darwin. And so do silences. “Most people have a dark side,” says Hank. “I did prison time. I’m not proud of it, don’t like to talk about it.” As the film shows again and again, not talking can be its own form of storytelling.