The story of Nebraska is a story of hard work, dedicated people and a special relationship with Mother Nature.
Georg Joutras tells that story in “Ocean of Grass: Life on a Nebraska Sandhills Ranch,” the Lincoln man’s first documentary.
The film tells the story of the McGinn Ranch, first settled in the 1880s and now moving into its fifth generation. It’s the story of a hard-working people living close to nature on the plains of the West.
“’Ocean of Grass’ is a story of perseverence, of rebirth and death, hard work, sacrifice, ongoing stewardship of the land and care for its creatures presented in a lyrical, emotional and beautifully filmed journey through the past and present,” Joutras said.
The film came about after Joutras became acquainted with this particular ranch in 2003 and ended up spending some time there.
“I was expecting to stay an evening, and I stayed a week,” he said. “The ranch is great people and great enviroment and fresh air and all the things you look for.”
Joutras wrote a book about the McGinn Ranch in 2003 and then in 2014 started filming the ranch with A GoPro camera he’d received from his family.
“I went out to the ranch and one thing led to another and that’s how it started from that little GoPro,” he said.
He started with the GoPro and then updated to another camera. When he showed the footage he had to some people, they encouraged him to keep going.
That’s when he upgraded his equipment and spent another year reshooting everything. But nothing was staged, it was all real ife.
“What I was trying to capture is a year in a life of a Sandhills ranch and people on the ranch,” he said. “I spent two years filming it and then I ended up with 120 hours of footage.”
That, however, isn’t out of the ordinary for a documentary film like “Ocean of Grass.”
One unique aspect of this film is there is no voiceover. All of the narration is from the interviews with those on the ranch.
They tell the story of the ranch, the future and how they deal with life there.
By the time he had the film completed in late 2017, Joutras had done everything on the film from directing to producing to filming and editing.
“If you look at credits, it’s ‘credits all to Georg Joutras,’” he said. “I did it all myself.”
The only work he had hired out was the musical score, which was written by Tom Larson, an assistant professor of composition at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who has done work for Nebraska Public Television along with other television and radio advertising, videos and documentaries.
This film’s debut was at the Kansas City FilmFest International in April.
“I didn’t know what the response would be,” Joutras said.
He knew the film had caused an emotional response among the people he’d shown it to but he didn’t know the response in a city setting.
“It’s not a story about how to be a rancher,” Joutras said. “That’s not the point. It’s really a story about Nebraska and how people look at the world and it just so happens to be based on a 130-year-old family operation Sandhill ranch.”
While Joutras would have been happy with 10 people turning up, they sold out the screening in Kansas City and since then have been selling out theaters from Chadron to Kearney and Lincoln to Broken Bow.
Joutras said he believes the story really plays well to the small-town theaters.
“It’s not a blockbuster,’ he said. “People are just relating to the realness of it.”
Joutras said he believes part of the success is the relatability people have with the film whether they’ve lived in the Sandhills or not.
“The surprising thing to me is the amount of emotion people feel after watching it,” Joutras said. “It’s cumulative in how you view it. It’s not that you’re going to get the film watching the first eight minutes. It grows as you watch it and gets more specific and emotional as you go through it.”
“Nothing was staged, there’s nothing political,” he said. “It shows the day-to-day life and the goodness of the people. It’s proven to be really remarkable.”