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Shawn Vestal: Four old documentaries on Spokane worth watching

Spokane-area documentary filmmaker Robert Pryor talked about his films at Hunter's Restaurant in Post Falls on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. Beginning in the 1960s, Pryor created films about Chief Spokane Garry, the city of Spokane, and the development of the Spokane and Columbia Rivers. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane-area documentary filmmaker Robert Pryor talked about his films at Hunter's Restaurant in Post Falls on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. Beginning in the 1960s, Pryor created films about Chief Spokane Garry, the city of Spokane, and the development of the Spokane and Columbia Rivers. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

It had been a long time since Robert L. Pryor thought much about the films he made in the 1960s and ’70s.

Then he got a call from an author and historical researcher on the West Side. His films, he was told, had been resurrected and posted on YouTube. Pryor made four documentaries about Spokane, primarily for use in the schools, but that chapter of his life had been long packed away in boxes in the garage of his Post Falls home.

“It’s been sitting in my garage for, well, we’ve been here 32 years and it’s been in a file in my garage that time,” said Pryor, 87. “I went out to my garage and found all this stuff. … It brought back a lot of memories. I’d forgotten quite a bit of it.”

Among Pryor’s “stuff” was a 16mm film canister with an original print of one of his films: “Chief Spokane Garry: Indian of the Northwest.” He also discovered files with materials from his days as one of Spokane’s pioneering documentarians: fliers advertising his films for sale to libraries, newspaper clippings and event programs.

All of that has been a nostalgic ride for Pryor. But the fact that his films are now available for viewing again has a wider significance. The four films occupy a unique niche, telling stories of the region’s history using distinctive documentary techniques. The West Side historian who came across the videos and helped bring them to light, Lee O’Connor, called Pryor a “pioneering” regional documentarian, and said it was a shame that his films had fallen by the wayside since the arrival of VHS and other technologies took them out of circulation in schools.

“Pryor’s films should interest scholars because they tell the history of Spokane and are a time capsule that show what Spokane looked like when he created his films,” O’Connor wrote in an email. “The documentaries should also interest film students because they are a sampler of 16mm filmmaking techniques: time lapse, slow motion, night photography, macro photography, sliding shots, and traditional title art.”

Pryor was born in Spokane and raised in Cheney. He worked for 32 years for Spokane Public Schools, first as a teacher and then as the coordinator of instructional materials. Part of his role was to review and buy films for the district’s classroom use, and he noticed a particular void.

“I felt a need for films on local subjects,” he said. “They weren’t available.”

In Pryor’s telling, there wasn’t much to it – he simply saw a need and decided to fill it. Shooting on a Bolex 16mm camera, Pryor figured out a documentary style: combining scenic background shots with the use of archival material such as maps, paintings and other historic material. He shot and did a rough edit of the film in his basement, then enlisted narrators and technical editors to finish the films.

His first effort was a 23-minute film about Chief Garry, the Spokane tribal leader who played a key role in dealings with white settlers in the 1800s. The film was made in 1966, and it tells the story largely from Garry’s point of view, documenting his efforts to be a friend to white settlers and a voice for peace – helping ease the way for resettlement into reservations, among other things – and the betrayals that greeted his efforts.

“I wasn’t trying to push a point, but I wanted to include the fact that he was not treated what I felt was fair,” Pryor said. “I think Garry was under-recognized as a significant historical figure. I had always been fascinated by his story.”

Pryor’s film details regional battles, and the eventual brutal campaign against the tribes by Col. George Wright. Garry – who was out of favor among some on both sides for his arguments for peace and cooperation – met with Col. Wright in an effort to bring an end to the bloodshed.

Wright’s reply, which Pryor quotes at length, was a tour-de-force of ruthlessness: “I have met you in two bloody battles. You’ve been badly whipped. You have lost several chiefs and many warriors killed or wounded. I have not lost a man or animal. I have a large force and you Spokanes, Coeur d’Alenes, Palouses and Pend Oreilles may unite and I can defeat you as badly as before. I did not come into this country to make peace. I came to fight.”

He demanded unconditional surrender: “If you do not do this, war will be made on you this year and next until your nation will be exterminated.”

Wright’s legacy includes brutal slaughters of native people, the mass killing of 700 horses taken from the tribes, and merciless hangings and betrayals – for which early history cast him as something like founding father status in Spokane. In Pryor’s mind, Garry had been overlooked, let alone mistreated.

In addition to making the film, Pryor took up a petition drive to name a new middle school in Spokane after the chief, and showed his film at the dedication for Garry Middle School in 1970.

In 1969, Pryor made “Spokane: The First 100 Years.” Like his other work, it has a look and feel of its time – grainy 16mm color, swelling orchestral music, dramatic narration – that recalled, for me, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom nature programs.

In his film on Spokane’s first 100 years, he celebrates the city’s economic and cultural institutions, but acknowledges its poverty and other problems, showing scenes of littered, abandoned streets while the narrator notes: “Mindful of the existing and future problems of a growing community, Spokane is actively seeking the proper solutions.”

Pryor followed with two other films on the Spokane and Columbia rivers. The films are fascinating documentations of the region’s history that have become historical documents themselves – representations of a certain age and attitude and style of historical storytelling.

The films were a part of Washington State University’s Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections, which put the Chief Garry documentary on YouTube in 2014. O’Connor, a WSU grad, came across them there, and tracked down Pryor to learn more. O’Connor has now put all four films on YouTube, and intends to use some footage in a documentary he is making about Cold War-era bomb shelters in the area. (I wrote a column about O’Connor’s book on this subject in May.)

After making those four films, Pryor gave it up. He said his aims were always modest.

“It was just something I decided to do,” he said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.