When it comes to small towns, Silverton certainly fits the description with a population of about 694, according to the most recent census estimates.
Of course, that number explodes in the summer with the influx of tourists who make their way into the tiny town to hike, bike, camp and visit courtesy of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge train.
Durango filmmaker Sean Owen is fascinated by Silverton, he said, and spent time getting to know the residents of the town, which became the documentary, “Silverton Gold.”
Before “Silverton Gold,” Owen’s most recent work was “Tribal Radio,” a documentary about the tribal radio station at KSUT in Ignacio. That film went on to win Best Native Film at the Santa Fe Film Festival in 2018.
For Owen, the idea of covering small groups of people is irresistible.
“I like going into small groups and doing like an ethnographic look at the group,” he said. “I try to go in from a neutral perspective and interview and observe and shoot B-roll. I just enjoy it.”
He said the idea to make a film about Silverton came to him about two years ago, and his initial efforts to make contacts were less than successful. But getting to know the residents of Silverton was an idea he just couldn’t shake.
“It didn’t work out – I called people and people weren’t willing to talk. It was kind of one of those (where) I tried to enter in and it just didn’t happen,” he said. “Then, I was backcountry skiing up on Molas Pass and I just looked down in there and I went, ‘I need to try again.’ That was about a year ago, and I did and I was very lucky to hook up with Anthony Edwards, who’s the San Juan County judge. ... I got there, and he just plopped me in the car and drove me around Silverton and introduced me to all kinds of people.”
Owen said one interview led to another, and “people would say, ‘You’ve got to talk to this old-timer and that old-timer and this extreme skier.’”
After about six months, Owen said he had more than enough people to interview and finished with about 43 interviewees, including some children at the school.
“After about six months of me driving over there during the winter, people said, ‘Yeah, I think this guy’s serious,’” he said. “In fact, the judge said, ‘I didn’t expect you to be here. People come and go and say they’re going to come and do some work and they don’t stick around.’”
He said he also had the support of, and worked very closely with, the San Juan Historical Society. He has given the society all of the interviews, and it allowed him to use any of its historical photos, so Owen was able to include a lot of history in the first third of the film.
“Silverton Gold,” Owen writes in a description of the film, “explores the transition from mining to tourism/recreation and the tension between development and preservation which is a common theme of many old Western mining towns. Silverton is going through such a shift, with the tensions that inevitably arise when economic and environmental concerns come into conflict. The strong ties and sense of community that bind the town together in times of stress are made clear.”
The town is moving along, and that’s part of the film, Owen said, adding that Silverton is working hard to attract families and to bring in small businesses.
And for the filmmaker, now that the movie is finished and ready for its debut, he said he’s missing the people he got to know.
“For me, I’m already missing going over there and interviewing people because it’s always fascinating, particularly in Silverton,” he said.
“Silverton Gold” will premiere next week in Silverton.