The Boston Film Festival wrapped up with Dead of Winter: The Donner Party, a historical documentary depicting the deadly journey taken by three families and their companions on a quest for the American Dream. George Donner and James F. Reed, who set out for California in a train of wagons in the spring of 1846, lead the group. After opting to take a shortcut to California known as the Hastings Cutoff, everything that could go wrong does. The families are subjected to drought, sub-zero temperatures, and ten-foot snowdrifts, and some of the settlers resort to cannibalism in order to survive. Dead of Winter: The Donner Party tells the harrowing tale of choice: what choice will you make when facing death? And the best part about it is that this is a true story. Dramatic reenactments, interviews with experts on the subject, and first-person narration capture the physical, emotional, and mental agony these settlers faced. It is the classic tale of Man Vs. Nature.
For anyone that has heard of the Donner Party, immediately the first thing that comes to mind is a group of sick cannibalistic pioneers. This documentary puts into perspective the hardships these settlers experienced as well as depth into many of the characters in the reenactment. Viewers can now see it as an instinct when facing starvation, and although it is close to impossible to imagine the mindset these settlers had to be in to make these choices, Dead of Winter puts the viewers into the situation through the many dramatic reenactments. These reenactments do an excellent job in making the viewer realize the conditions these settlers endured in order to better understand why they chose to do what they did. Experts interviewed in the documentary even agreed with the decisions the settlers made, which emphasized the point that cannibalism was truly the only way these people could survive, as heavy as that is to grasp.
Walking into this film, its clear that the story is dark, true, and unsettling. There are no better words to describe the tone of Dead of Winter than these. From the very first text appearing on the screen, the viewer knows that what they are about to see will be grim. The colors throughout the documentary are bland, suggesting drought and desert before the settlers even come upon these hardships. The film has a vintage feel to it, as if to emphasize the fact that almost none of these people make it to the end; they are doomed from the start. Once the documentary makes it into the mountains, the tone could not be described without using the words bleak, bitter, and cold. It is hard to have hope for these people in such a dire situation. The documentary captures this hopelessness quite forcefully, in a way that creates shivers and causes the viewer to be thankful for modern-day transportation.
Dead of Winter: The Donner Party captivates the audience from the very beginning and replicates the haunting true story of people who suffered all because of a wrong choice, a choice they didn’t know would cost the lives of half of their travelers. This documentary honors the settlers and the choices they made, as well as stresses the true heroism some of these people pertained.
Overall Grade: A