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Hit the road, Desert Companion readers! And while you're at it, have a look around. This issue invites you to not only escape to the outdoors, but also to think about the environmental issues affecting our pursuits and our world.

Mountains of Uncertainty

Sundial Pictures

In her recent Las Vegas-based documentary, L. Frances Henderson explores toxic waste and personal loss

Director L. Frances Henderson’s documentary This Much We Know (available now on VOD platforms) explores the topics of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and the suicide rate in Las Vegas, filtered through Henderson’s own personal perspective. It’s an often-impressionistic essay film, spending time with the family of Levi Presley, the 16-year-old who jumped to his death from the Stratosphere Tower in 2002, as well as with various experts on both Yucca Mountain and suicide. Henderson frames the movie as a way to process her own friend’s Las Vegas suicide, although the tone is more open-ended than definitive. Henderson spoke with Desert Companion about the process of making a film on such difficult subjects.

When did you first start working on the film? It’s been quite a journey. I started the film about 12 years ago, after I read John D’Agata’s book About a Mountain. I was really drawn in to Las Vegas. I had never been to Las Vegas before, but that book had a lot of themes that I was really thinking about in my own work. Las Vegas was a place to explore all of those issues and challenges that I felt I was having working in documentary film, and also relating to my own friend’s suicide.

Before starting the film, did you have any ideas or expectations about Las Vegas? Certainly. I think the book augments that feeling as well. It’s a similar feeling to what I think a lot of people have about Las Vegas who’ve never been there — that it’s all Strip-centric and it’s really about the casino life and the spectacle. Before I came, I just thought of it as that place. I came to Las Vegas for the first time in 2011, and after I started working on the film, I think I’ve been there about five or six times more. Each time I went, I shed that idea of Las Vegas.

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How did the movie evolve over all the years you spent working on it? I went in expecting to just do an adaptation of the book, and the more personal I made it, the more it deviated from the Yucca Mountain story. Originally it was going to be a narrative with actors. I had actually written a script and was thinking about what actors I wanted to cast. But that was not my comfort zone. I come from documentary. I like working with real people. I like engaging in the unexpected that happens in front of the camera. So, the film evolved from narrative into this documentary hybrid where there’s narrative scenes, but also then there’s the layer of my experience that is more of a documentary essay, and then there’s archival footage.

How did UNLV film professor West McDowell get involved as an associate producer? West was just an amazing resource and collaborator. He got involved pretty early on. He actually was introduced to me through Jesse (Pino), who was Levi Presley’s best friend. He was very experienced in the film world, and basically was like my project manager and scout, and then became an associate producer and introduced me to the whole local crew.

Did making the film help you process the loss of your friend? Yeah, for sure. Grief doesn’t have an end. It just has evolution, I guess. It ebbs and flows. My friend’s death was a mystery for a long time, and it just became this nagging crack in my heart for many, many years. I just thought, ‘Okay, maybe that’s what it is.’ But it never stopped me from mulling over the facts over and over again. Every year around her death, I would revive all those problems that I had with not knowing. What this did was connect me with people who shared in that same problem. We can bury ourselves in all the facts we know, but there’s a value in having an emotional reaction that doesn’t make any sense. It can almost be more healing. Discovering that in the Presleys’ journey helped me feel more comforted in my own. ✦

Support resources for anyone having suicidal thoughts are available via the 988 Lifeline and the Nevada Office of Suicide Prevention