Appellate Judge James A. Stewart once went for 15 minutes without electricity during a thunderstorm.
"The basic rules are: you don't steal from your neighbor, you know, you don't shoot your neighbor."
Out in the Mesa, there's a neighborhood association of sorts, but the rules don't go much beyond what's listed above. After all, people went to the Mesa for freedom.
The Mesa is 15 square miles of New Mexico desert, about 25 miles from the nearest town. Around 400 people live there. Those 400 people live without electricity (unless it's solar) or running water and have to heat their homes with wood they've chopped themselves. They can end up going weeks without bathing.
As you've guessed, they're non-conformists, including Gulf War vets who needed to come to terms with their experiences in solitude and at least one self-described middle-aged hippie. They've managed to form a community, bartering and looking out for each other. Over two-and-a-half years, their lives were chronicled by filmmakers Jeremy and Randy Stulberg, a brother-sister team, in Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa.
The documentary profiles several of the Mesa's citizens, most notoriously Dean Maher, who disputes reports that he set his own home on fire and let his dogs die inside, when police came to search for marijuana.
Most interesting is how the community handles a series of thefts committed by "The Nowhere Kids," a group of teen runaway anarchists. While there's lots of tough talk ("It's better that we get you out of here than shoot you"), the resolution includes a council meeting and a visit to The Nowhere Kids by the "mamas," the women of the Mesa. No one brought in the law, but it wasn't frontier justice.
The filmmakers manage to stay out of the way, despite a flashy opening with an aerial shot of the desert unfolding before viewers' eyes and a few fantastic backdrops. The barren scenery does have a beauty to it, but I found myself concentrating on what was going on in the Mesa community. Screen comments are used mainly to make the events they show easier to follow. The filmmakers also show names on-screen often so you can keep track of who's who; I offer a hearty "thank you" for that. The sound is variable, depending on who's talking, but doesn't present problems.
True, The Nowhere Kids' refusal to be filmed (one wears a bandanna to hide his face when talking on-screen) seems a little too local TV news, and the quotes about freedom seem too obvious, but Off the Grid represents this unique way of life without much in the way of filters.
Four voices are listed for the commentary, but most of it is co-directors Randy and Jeremy Stulberg. There are some good bits of background information here. There's also a too-brief anecdote about how Randy almost accidentally shot her brother.
Also included are a trailer that makes the movie seem more tense and dramatic than it is; leftover bits from interviews, most notably one on the history of the land and the community and a light scene in which a resident demonstrates how to open a beer bottle without cutting your hand; and several short deleted scenes. There's only one—the history lesson—that needed to be in the film, but the extra bits are still interesting. There's no "play all" feature, so you'll have to click each extra scene.
The filmmakers tried to make the Mesa hard to find, calling the nearest town "Town" on the screen, but it's hardly necessary. The geographical clues they do include will give you a rough idea if you're observant, and you probably won't want to live out there anyway. You might not miss baths, but you would miss the important things, like electricity for DVD players. Still, it's nice knowing that it's not as lonely as you'd think, and you'll end up rooting for the people who do live there. If it sounds intriguing, you'll like it.
Not guilty, although you never know what a stricter neighborhood association might say.
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Scales of Justice
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