When I saw the preview for Searching for West — a short film by Montana native Mark Seacat that premiered earlier this week — I expected another adventure flick about hunting that unfindable bull elk. It's a story we've all seen before.
What I found — and I think what Seacat found in the unfolding frames of this short film — was something entirely different and intensely better.
As he reflects in the film, "The memories that I always think about with hunting aren't the stories of the successful hunts where you got the bull you were searching for, it's always the ones that got away, the times when it wasn't perfect, where I really learned something."
Seacat set off into the wild to trim his arrows, sharpen his broadheads and sight in his bow, immersing himself in the battle like Rocky Balboa training to take on Ivan Drago. He muses in the film, "Now it's all about pushing myself€¦ how do I kill the bull that can't be killed? How do I find the bull that's never been seen?"
As a hunter, your heart thumps with pulse-pounding rhythm, ready to take on a seven-foot-tall Russian or an undetectable bull elk, whichever comes first. I even thought for a moment of pinning a picture of a giant bull to my cubicle wall for inspiration.
But then a twist, an unexpected turn in the road. Seacat's son West was born 10 days before the first day of the 2011 archery season, leaving the new father to hunt without his longtime trail companion and wife, Katie, and to miss much of those first newborn days. And for much of the film Seacat questions the importance of this hunting season, exposing in himself an aching for his family as he misses the moments that won't come again.
As a father of three boys, I have to say I began to tear up while frantically checking my back to make sure no one was looking. It's moving stuff. Seacat and his wife, Katie, hold their newborn as he flashes back from the snowy hills to the warmth of their home, wishing he were there.
And then it hits him. There alone on the side of a frozen mountain, trying to warm himself before a snow-entrenched fire, the moment that changes him.
"It's crazy how life changes, how your priorities can change so quickly. There's things in life that are more important than hunting, and for the past couple of years I don't think that I knew that. There was this moment that taught me that I needed to be better at being a father, needed to be better at being a husband, and hunting was something in my life that could wait."
And so he returns home without an elk after busting his hump through both archery and rifle seasons, having spent himself all spring in preparation for the hunt. But he comes home to find so much more — a family that needs him and, unlike the fall, won't be the same next year without him.
Cinematography & Filmography
The film begins with some of the most amazing cinematography you could imagine from the plains and mountainous regions of Montana, replete with lavish blue skies, breathtaking vistas, and waving fields of grain. Slow motion footage of Seacat turning a timberous tree into a wood-fueled fire draw you in, the flames dancing and glowing hotter as he trims his handcrafted arrows for the upcoming season.
As a movie goer and armchair film critic, this is one of the most visually well-done films I've seen in a long time. The footage, the slow motion cameras, the lighting and colors, all of it screams of the beauty of Montana and of the immense skill of the production team. And it can't hurt that they had a $200,000 helicopter mounted camera along for the ride.
Aside from the content (which itself was fantastic), you can't do much better than this in terms of really portraying the beauty of a place like Montana and at the same time capturing the weight of human emotion. I found myself a) wanting to move back to the romanticized West of my childhood, b) go chop firewood in slow motion, c) go traipsing through a frozen wilderness in pursuit of a dream bull, and d) really treasure the time I have with my family. It's hard to do all that with one 25 minute film, but Seacat and crew have done it unspeakably well.
The Final Take
And finally, I want to address the film as a father, hunter, and native westerner. In the hunting genre, we men usually carry around the stereotype of being gruff, non-emotional creatures who may well be the missing link between the caveman and John Q Public of the 21st century. A lot of that is well deserved.
But what Seacat brings out so intimately is that a lot of the guys that take to the field in search of game are at heart tender, relational guys that value the camaraderie of the hunt as much as anything else. They might not say as much, but it's true.
Like many men (and women), my fondest memories of life are elk hunting in Colorado with my dad as a young boy. Those moments have made me who I am, and were so much more valuable than sitting in a field by myself. It was at heart the relationship that mattered, as Seacat points out to us all.
And finally, as an avid hunter and father, it's such a great reminder that as good as this gig is, and as much as we enjoy doing it, our families and relationships are so much more important. Next year's hunting season will come like the rest of them, but my boys are getting older and I don't want to miss my time with them. Hunting will always be around, but your family may not be.
So take the main lesson from Searching for West to heart: nothing, not even the hunt, compares to the irreplaceable moments you'll share with your family. Don't let them slip away.