- Associated Press - Friday, June 13, 2014

BEMIDJI, Minn. (AP) - Paul Bunyan was a huge part of Nik Nerburn’s childhood. His first school was Paul Bunyan Elementary in Bemidji. His first assignment was to draw a picture of the ax-wielding figure in plaid. And as a teen, he hung out in the shadow of Paul and Babe statutes at the Paul Bunyan mall.

Now, after a decade away from Bemidji, Nerburn has returned to his hometown to finish a documentary on the legendary figure.

“Paul Bunyan is everywhere in Bemidji,” Nerburn said. “I didn’t even realize that was weird until I left.”

Paul Bunyan is generally thought to be the 1922 creation of William Laughead. It was a marketing tool for the Minnesota-based Red River Logging Co., at a time when Minnesota loggers were running low on local wood sources and started bringing in lumber from California. Statues started popping up across the country near the end of the Great Depression and Bemidji got its hulking statue in 1937.

Nerburn didn’t pay much attention to Paul as a child. But at some point, he began thinking that the giant represented the expansion of the white man into native lands, the consumption of natural resources and glorification of traditional blue-collar masculinity.

“How much more blatant can you get? A dude wearing flannel with his beast of burden staring out over the city he’s built,” he said. “If you know anything about colonial history or Native American displacement it doesn’t really set well with you.”

Nerburn, 25, tells Minnesota Public Radio News (https://bit.ly/1pS6QDT ) he started his project in hopes of getting all the Paul Bunyan statues torn down. But that’s not the goal anymore.

After traveling across the West Coast and Midwest to gather footage of Paul Bunyan statues, he says his view of Paul has softened. Near the end of a rough cut of his documentary, Nerburn’s voiceover suggests there’s a difference between history and heritage. Paul Bunyan is simply heritage.

“People love Paul,” he said. “As well they should.”

Now his goal is simply to “complicate” Paul Bunyan.

Nerburn, of San Francisco, considers himself a punk documentary filmmaker. He uses old 16-millimeter film and shows his work at art houses. The Northern Spark Art Festival picked up some of his work and “In the Shadow of Paul Bunyan” will be shown at the Cowles Center for Dance and Performing Arts Saturday in Minneapolis.


Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, https://www.mprnews.org

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