is not easy to recruit a theoretical mathematician to a small college nestled
in the middle of nowhere. You would think the administration and the police
would be somewhat alarmed when said math professor turned up missing. However,
many of Dr. Steven Haataja’s friends and colleagues were troubled by a perceived
lack of urgency during the early days of his disappearance. The mystery only deepened
further when Haataja’s body was discovered. The case became the central strand
of Poe Ballantine’s eccentric true crime ode to his adopted home town. Inspired
by Ballantine’s pseudo-memoir, Dave Jannette’s investigates Chadron, Nebraska’s
most notorious missing person case in Love
and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere (trailer here), which screens as a
Midnight selection of this year’s DOC NYC.
math is a young, socially awkward man’s game, so the forty-six year old Haataja
was already over the hill when he arrived at Chadron State College. They were
still lucky to have someone with his qualifications. In his short time in
Chadron, Haataja seemed to be making friends, despite a history of depression.
Then one day he vanished. Months later, he was discovered, bound to a tree and unrecognizably
burnt to death. Naturally, the Chadron police eventually determined it was
Haataja’s hands were apparently free, but it still just did not add up
correctly for Ballantine. In the film’s centerpiece sequence, the author
retraces Haataja’s alleged final steps under similar below-freezing, nocturnal conditions,
finding it hard going, even without a recently mended broken hip.
Unfortunately, there will be no definitive closure, just more questions. There
is also an awful lot of Ballantine and his family, who are all quite pleasant,
but often feel like a bit of a distraction from the existential mystery at
hand. Still, Ballantine obviously feels a kinship with Haataja as outsiders who
found an unlikely home in off-the-beaten-path Chadron.
constantly plays up Chadron’s idiosyncratic characters, including some who have
no apparent connection to the case, but look suitably exotic on camera. There
seems to be an effort to play to the Twin
Peaks audience, while leaving some issues underdeveloped. Frankly, the
material presented in Howling raises
a red flag regarding known victims of depression who subsequently die under
suspicious circumstances. How diligently are they investigated or are they
commonly dismissed as suicides for the sake of convenience?
it would be quite a tangent to follow-up on, it is also rather disconcerting
when a colleague explains his attempt to interest The Chronicle of Higher Education in the then missing Haataja was
rebuffed because they constantly received similar reports of vanishing
academics. You have to wonder just how many of them really do “turn up later.”
Nonetheless, his use of the local newspaper’s Police Beat is undeniably funny
and in its way, quite telling.
is something about the Haataja case that is hard to shake off. It festers in
the subconscious, crying out for a conclusive verdict, but remains maddeningly
obscure. There is also a lot of anger in Howling
that is not misplaced. Better as a true crime expose than an exploration of
local color, Love and Terror on the Howling
Plains of Nowhere is recommended on balance when it screens this Saturday
night (11/15) as part of DOC NYC 2014.
Labels: DOC NYC '14, Documentary, Dr. Steven Haataja