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'Population Zero,' debuting at film festival, explores the Zone of Death

The premise of "Population Zero," which premieres Monday at the Newport Beach Film Festival, is salacious.

A lone gunman, in seemingly random fashion, kills three friends camping in a remote area of Yellowstone National Park in 2009. Then, in another ostensibly odd act, the shooter, Dwayne Nelson, casually strolls into a ranger station to confess.

A temporary act of madness, he claims.

But, as the film explores, Nelson, despite his admittance of guilt, is never prosecuted. Rather, his defense attorney helps him walk free by utilizing a constitutional loophole that, in effect, ensures Nelson never goes to trial.

That's the back story that Canadian documentarian Julian Pinder, accompanied by Adam Levins, explores in "Population Zero," a title that hints at the loophole aiding Nelson's crimes.

The film's tag line? "More shocking than the crime itself are the bizarre events that followed."

"It struck me as being an interesting project because of the fact that it was, in a sense, challenging both yourself and your audience," Pinder said of his independent production.

Pinder's credits include "Jesus Town, USA," a 2014 documentary about a small Oklahoma community that has pantomimed a passion play for the last eight decades.

"Population Zero" has been about four years in the making. It contains subject matter from which he simply couldn't turn away.

"This one checked a lot of boxes for me," Levins said. "It was different. It wasn't your standard thing. It doesn't fit in a neat box."

Pinder and Levins hope that "Population Zero," which runs just under 90 minutes, will challenge the audience's perception of reality in the media, and maybe start debates. Viewers may Google the alleged events and be shocked at the results.

Or not.

Truth is "such a hard thing to define," Levins said. "What is truth with a capital T?"

Pinder and Levins note that "Population Zero's" loophole relates to the so-called "Zone of Death," a 50-square-mile sliver of eastern Idaho that's part of Yellowstone. The term and loophole first surfaced in 2005 in a Georgetown Law Journal piece, "The Perfect Crime," by Michigan State law professor Brian C. Kalt.

"These are real issues that we wanted to bring to light," Levins said. "It's an interesting debate to start."

Levins is no stranger to the Newport Beach Film Festival. Last year, he premiered "Estranged" there. The thriller involved a woman who lost her long-term memory and was having difficulties reconnecting with her family.

"It's a good festival for us," Levins said. "Every time I've been there, it's always been really great and they take good care of us there."

Added Pinder, "They tend to have really great audiences, really smart, on-the-ball audiences, when it comes to the films. It's really a lot of fun when you get great questions and people really engaged in the screening."

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IF YOU GO

What: "Population Zero" premiere

When: 8:30 p.m. Monday

Where: Island Cinema, 999 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach

Cost: $15

Second screening: 5:15 p.m. Thursday, Edwards Big Newport 6, 300 Newport Center Drive

Information: newportbeachfilmfest.com

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bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradleyZint

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