By KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
A family is at the heart of a new documentary about Baja California being shown at the Natural History Museum on March 10. “Devil’s Road” recreates the epic journey of two prolific naturalists: Edward William Nelson and Edward Alphonso Goldman. The pair spent 10 months collecting 30,000 specimens in Baja California in 1905-06 while it was still a nearly untouched wilderness punctuated by small villages. Their legacy shrank into obscurity except among their descendants, which include the Bruce family. The Bruces knew about the adventures of their conservationist great grand uncle and in 2016, decided to make a documentary about his work that would eventually become “Devil’s Road.”
J.T. Bruce graduated from SDSU’s film school in 2009 so he was situated to direct the film. He did the majority of the filming himself along with the post-production jobs of visual effects, sound design, editing and voice-over. His father Todd Bruce served as the producer and his sister Bri Bruce was the associate producer and marketing director.
“I had the opportunity now to learn more about my family’s history. Going through this whole process, I got to do a cool project with my kids. Having your adult children want to spend time with you and work on a project like this, to me is the best thing that I could ever hope for,” said Todd Bruce.
They hope that by centering the family, they are humanizing the process of exploration for a broader audience.
To round out the four-person film crew, scientific advisor Greg Meyer was brought on board.
“If we can alert people — educate them about [Baja California’s] uniqueness, maybe it can be preserved,” said Meyer. “One of the most interesting things for me in doing all the research about Nelson and Goldman and the work that they did, was they recognized in 1905 and ‘06 how much of the flora and fauna was on the brink of extinction. ‘If we don’t do something now, this wildness will not be here.’ They recognized it back then.”
With the same conservationist goals as the Bruces’ ancestor, the crew highlighted at-risk species as Baja has become more developed, particularly in the last decade. They did not want the documentary to be all “doom and gloom” though so they interviewed scientists about preservation work being done, including by the Mexican government, which has set up national parks and biospheres to protect the area. Among the experts included in the film are Exequiel Ezcurra, a UC Riverside ecologist who formerly worked at the San Diego Natural History Museum, who was an architect of a program to release endangered California condors in Baja.
The film aims to balance the serious topics it delves into with a fun soundtrack of rock ‘n roll and motorcycle adventures.
Goldman and Nelson traversed the rugged terrain by horseback. Father and son followed the same path but on motorcycle, with a few jaunts by boat, surfboard, and horse. After a trip to Washington, D.C. to visit the Smithsonian where most photos, notes, and specimens from the original expedition are, the pair were able to recreate many of the photographs Nelson and Goldman took — documenting a century of change on the biodiverse peninsula.
Although not as difficult as 10 months spent on horseback, the filming itself was challenging. Unlike big productions with a chase vehicle, all of their food, fuel, camping gear and cameras had to be packed onto the motorcycles each morning.
“It was packing up, filming, writing, unpacking, setting up camp and then starting it all over again,” said Todd Bruce.
“Our daily routine was really a balance between planning and improvisation. We got into trouble sometimes where we just couldn’t traverse the path that we had planned out. We had to reroute and improvise. We would constantly either run into unexpected things that were super exciting that we needed to film, or the things that we were planning to film were not nearly as interesting as we thought they were,” said director J.T. Bruce.
His sister Bri also joined them for one section of the trip where they followed the exact path Nelson and Goldman took on horseback.
“This is a great example of the little pockets that you find in Baja that are still really wild and there really isn’t any indication that you’re in 2017 versus 1905. I had the opportunity to be firsthand, on the back of a horse riding through the desert, just really putting myself in Nelson and Goldman’s shoes. To get that perspective was a very pivotal reason why we wanted to make this film,” she said.
She also joined them to surf, which was an important aspect to include because surfing is what put Baja California on the map in modern times and fueled the tourism explosion that has led to so much development of the once natural landscape.
The family’s adventures, both past and present, are the backdrop to a film which highlights preservation success stories and serious issues of ecological destruction. Since so many people vacation in Baja, the film could give viewers a broader vision of what the peninsula contains.
“Nelson and Goldman have this major expedition 100-plus years ago — and this place still exists. You can still go and have this kind of adventure. That’s what we saw with J.T. and Todd as they drove the peninsula on their motorcycles. That’s just a reminder to people that the world’s a big place and there’s still a lot of wild left,” Meyer said.
The showing on the giant screen at the Natural History Museum is at 6:30 p.m. on March 10. The creators, as well as some of the scientists and conservationists, will be on hand to speak. Tickets may be purchased online, at the museum, or by calling 877-946-7797.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at email@example.com.