There’s a lot about Bend that catches the attention of authors and documentary filmmakers.

The natural beauty. Its history. Even the roundabouts are interesting, with several serving as homes to public art sculptures.

But in a larger story about how small towns survive or stumble after losing industries like manufacturing or logging, Bend stands out as a rare success story.

For the past week, a film crew has shot interviews and scenic vistas in Bend for “Our Towns,” an HBO documentary based on a book that highlights how small American towns have bounced back from adversity. The filmmakers have already visited five states.

“It just felt like a natural arc to all the towns we went to,” said Jeanne Jordan, who is producing the documentary. “Bend seemed like the poster city for a place that has re-created itself.”

HBO decided to turn the book into a documentary after it was published in 2018, and will likely air it sometime in 2020.

“We were looking for places that were not subject to national media coverage that had some problem …(and) that had some interesting story and response,” said James Fallows, the longtime reporter for The Atlantic who co-authored “Our Towns” with his wife, Deborah Fallows.

The story came onto the network’s radar after the former head of HBO, Richard Plepler, read the book and saw its potential as a documentary, Jordan said.

Jordan eventually got the call about making “Our Towns,” partially because of her work making “Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern,” an Oscar-nominated documentary that focused on rural life.

She has produced or directed more than a dozen documentaries and other TV shows since the 1980s.

“It was kind of a blind date,” Jordan said. “Then we were off and running.”

The Fallows’ journey began in 2011, after returning from five years of touring the hinterlands of China. They found a post-recession America with which they felt out of touch.

“We felt like we had missed a big chunk of time and was not quite sure what was going on in the country,” Deborah Fallows said.

So in 2012, the Fallows decided to take to the skies, flying a small single-engine plane to explore more rural communities with underreported stories. Their journey took them everywhere from West Virginia to California, before eventually ending in Bend.

Bend fell onto the map because of the towns’ ability to rebrand itself as a tourist destination after the fall of the timber industry, James Fallows said.

“Very few people realize (that) three decades ago … (Bend’s) unemployment rate was higher than Detroit’s, which had more famed manufacturing downturns,” James Fallows said.

The documentary will explore how Bend responded to economic hardship through leadership, development and an investment in the arts.

The book, as well as the film, documents Bend’s growth and the redevelopment of places like the Old Mill District, along with the city’s growing arts scene.

“With young people moving to town, there weren’t galleries and there weren’t places to show work,” said Deborah Fallows. “They got together and started the beginning of what has become an incredible and participatory arts scene.”

The roundabout art was critical to redefining how people viewed Bend, she said.

“It was funny that in a strong, community-focused way the arts grew up out of that sentiment: We are a community and this is a piece we need to use as an explanation of who we are,” she said.

While each town has its own story, at the end of their reporting, the Fallows found a pattern among the towns they visited: Local communities weren’t going to wait for someone else to fix their problems. “People use their own passion and commitment to their town to fix their own problems,” Deborah Fallows said.

It was important to highlight these kinds of efforts, she said, because they were really in contrast to how the country was seen to be working as a whole in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.

“As the country was having its national challenges, people became more interested in wanting to hear these stories as another view of what was going on in America,” Deborah Fallows said. “It wasn’t just going to hell-in-a-hand basket story of America. It was another story of America that was different, but equally true.”

Jordan and the Fallows hope this documentary can serve as “news you can use” for other communities seeking to lift themselves up from economic hardship.

“There’s a real hunger from community to community to ask: How are we supposed to do that?” Deborah Fallows said.

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, bvisser@bendbulletin.com

Old Mill District Developer, Bill Smith, has been interviewed for the documentary. He is a shareholder in Central Oregon Media Group, an entity formed by Salem-based EO Media Group, which owns The Bulletin.

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