The Quiet Force film Highlights the Plight of the Ski Resort Industry’s Most Vulnerable Workers

WRITER’S NOTE: Day Three of Outdoor Retailer is noticeably different than Day One. The exhibit hall once bursting with frenetic energy a mere 48 hours before is a ghost town. Glassy-eyed exhibitors look at their watches- wearily counting down the hours until they can tear down their booths. Hopeful sustenance-seeking attendees gather in vain at the BOGS booth for a complimentary espresso, or the VANS booth for a waffle-on-a-stick, only to leave empty-handed: to the disappointment of all, both booths have shut down.

Killing time in between appointments, attendees aimlessly wander the aisles, or nap on couches in the outer hallways. Even the once-packed New Belgium beer booth that has been plying everyone with free cups of their trademark Fat Tire since Day One is noticeably empty.

Outdoor Retailer veterans know that throwing an event on the last night of the last day of Outdoor Retailer is a risk; especially if it is off-site and located nowhere near the convention center.

However, in the case of The Quiet Force film, the screening might as well have taken place in the exhibit hall on Day One. The Quiet Force made its Denver debut on February 1 to a standing room only crowd at the EVO Denver store.

Quiet Force

Sophie Danison, Diana Zuniga and Hilary Byrne.
Photo credit: Leslie Hittmeier


The Quiet Force is not another ski film.

An investigative journalism piece, The Quiet Force illuminates the lives of unseen employees working behind the scenes at multi-million dollar American ski resorts (Jackson Hole, Mammoth, and Vail).

Additionally, this timely film invites critical dialogue by addressing how the current administration poses a deportation threat to these underpaid immigrants and undocumented workers from Mexico and Latin American countries critical to the ski tourism industry in the United States.

From the opening sequence of a haunting image of a border wall prototype paired with audio of President Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric booming in the background, filmmakers Sophie Danison and Hilary Byrne make clear the film’s intent.

Who are the Quiet Force, exactly?

This specific group of employees, dubbed “The Quiet Force” by writer David Page in his 2016 article of the same name for Powder Magazine, are an invisible workforce (comprised of housekeepers, cooks, dishwashers, janitors, construction workers, and groundskeepers) that make up the bulk of the service industry so vital to ski resorts and ski towns.

What makes this workforce “invisible”? They are low paid employees that ski tourists rarely encounter directly because their work requires them to be mainly behind the scenes.

If you’re a visitor in Jackson Hole, you’re generally interacting with pretty specific people – airport personnel, concierges, front-of-house in restaurants, ski instructors, lifties, etc.,” explained Danison and Byrne.

“The population we’re referring to in the film is the immigrant community -primarily Latino- that comprises 30 percent of the population in Jackson and lives here year-round. Often they fill jobs that are behind the scenes – dishwashers, housekeeping, construction and more. As long as there are jobs to fill, they will continue to come,” they finished.

Is the sharp divide between the Quiet Force and their white counterparts in the ski resort industry intentional? Does some kind of unspoken segregation exist?

Danison doesn’t think so.

In addition to familial obligations on the home front, there are “…plenty of cultural and language barriers at play that keeps the Latino community separated. And then on top of that, right now, fear is at play and many members of the Quiet Force community prefer to stay hidden, quiet, and fly under the radar,” she explained.

The Need for the Quiet Force

It is impossible to discuss the future of the U.S. ski resort industry and surrounding, tourist-dependent mountain towns without addressing their dependency on the Quiet Force’s labor.

The Quiet Force not only fills low wage jobs deemed undesirable by others but also remain in the area year-round, not just for the season. Without the Quiet Force, ski towns would suffer a severe labor shortage and tourism would assuredly grind to a halt.

Jackson Hole was confronted with that problem in 2016 when high-end eatery Couloir Restaurant was forced to shut down for the busy summer tourist season due to the subsequent labor shortage brought on by a lack of affordable housing.

“We can’t imagine a resort like Jackson Hole surviving on locals alone. In the place where I live, I can’t do my job without the backbone of immigrant labor,” Danison remarked.

David Page is only the latest writer to address the subject of the Latino workforce in the ski industry. From Hal Clifford’s 2003 tome, “Downhill Slide”, to Robert Sanchez’s 5280 article “Leadville Transforms Itself (Again)” published in 2017, the lived experiences, economic inequities, and fears of displacement due to lack of affordable housing or deportation of the Quiet Force are described in frank detail.

When not threatened by the prospect of unannounced ICE sweeps, the Quiet Force is challenged with long hours, dangerous commutes on mountain passes in vehicles not equipped to handle in snow storms, and finding affordable housing in a sea of homes being flipped into short term Airbnb rentals.

Danison stated that the U.S. currently has an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants who have come to the country looking for work.

“If there weren’t jobs for them to fill and hopes for a better life, they wouldn’t be risking their lives to get here. If that stream of available low paid workers were to disappear, the want ads in The Daily would be extensive,” she remarked.

“Unless the American unemployed are planning a mass domestic migration to mountain towns and prepared to show up every day for these low paid jobs, we’re in for a rough go without our immigrant workforce,” she warned.

The Threat to Undocumented Workers

What makes The Quiet Force film so compelling is the timeliness of the story and the current threat the Trump Administration poses to undocumented workers.

Like a dark cloud, fear and uncertainty hang above the Quiet Force who is well aware that friends and family members can be deported without warning.

According to Byrne, immigration policy allows a certain number of workers to arrive in the U.S. legally, but visas are not available at the rate they are needed. Once a worker is undocumented, that status cannot be changed.

“One of the most overlooked struggles is the unknown. Many of these people are living in limbo in dealing with so many unknown variables. Consequently, that leads to a lot of stress, anxiety, and fear. For example, some children have legal status while their parents do not. What happens if these families are torn apart?” she said.

Even those protected under Deferred Action for Children Arrivals (DACA), are not guaranteed immunity from deportment.

“In one case, a child was brought to the U.S. as a baby. Although she received protected status through DACA, she is required to reapply every two years. What happens if DACA is discontinued?” wondered Byrne.

A Precarious Situation

The gnawing feeling that the ski industry’s silent workforce is in a precarious situation in the current political climate has not gone unnoticed.

In 2018, Powder Magazine published an article addressing liveable wages for ski resort employees. In it, one ski rental shop manager expressed concerns about “…having to rely on foreign workers with J-1 visas,” not because they are not hard workers, but as is the program “has a cloudy future under the Trump administration.”

While the problem of uncertainty is acknowledged, Danison and Byrne have yet to see any ski resorts taking a notable stand on immigration policy change, nor very publicly advocating on behalf of what is arguably their largest group of employees.

Aspiring for a paradigm shift in the ways in which we consider undocumented, underpaid and unappreciated ski resort employees, The Quiet Force highlights individuals and their experiences, not faceless numbers that often elicit no emotion.

“Being an undocumented worker has a negative connotation because it’s largely misunderstood who these people are. Perhaps national sentiment would change if there was more awareness of the difficulties they encounter coming to the U.S. legally,” Byrne and Danison said.

“We hope the impact of our film is comprehensive legislation change; informed, educated neighbors who are kind; and integration… not ICE raids,” they finished.

One of the most important documentaries of the year, The Quiet Force offers a critical lens from which to examine social issues at the heart of the ski resort industry. Despite the relatively short length of the film, Byrne and Danison demonstrate their aptitude as skilled storytellers who tackle a difficult and polarizing issue without antagonizing the audience- the latter of which is a remarkable feat.

Currently, on tour in Montana and Utah, The Quiet Force will return to Colorado on March 7 at 5:30 PM at the Silverthorne Town Pavilion. Tickets can be purchased here. Another screening will be held March 8 at 5:30 PM at Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge. Information for that showing can be found here.

Curious? Check out the The Quiet Force official trailer.

EPILOGUE: The film’s duration (less than 40 minutes) is intentional, as the filmmakers wanted to leave time for reflective dialogue and thoughtful audience participation following its conclusion.

Over the years, I have attended countless outdoor recreation industry movies with social justice platforms. However, “The Quiet Force” is the first screening in recent memory that I have witnessed such a politically charged and engaged audience that stayed in their seats long after the screening had ended. “The Quiet Force” confirms Danison and Bryne’s credibility as serious, investigative journalists.


About the author: Kate Agathon

Engearment's Kate Agathon and filmmaker Hilary Byrne

Engearment’s Kate Agathon and filmmaker Hilary Byrne

A Colorado native, Kate considers the outdoors her mother ship. She brings her passion for bicycling, the environment, and issues of diversity to her writing. Her primary outdoor recreation activities are mountain biking, fat biking, snowshoeing, camping, peak bagging Colorado’s 14ers, road cycling, and Nordic skiing. After suffering two major knee injuries within four years, Kate hopes to return to alpine skiing next season.

Kate 14er

Kate earned a bachelor’s degree in History from Colorado State University and later an MSEd and Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from Purdue University. In addition to her education, Kate’s background serving on the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee and experience working for non-profits and bicycle sales well position her to bring depth and understanding to the complex changes currently taking place in the outdoor recreation industry.

 

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