I first met Beth and George Gage, the husband and wife team of Gage and Gage Productions, in the fall of 2010. They came to my alma mater — Pitzer College in Claremont, California — to screen the trailer of their most recent documentary film, Bidder 70.
Like any of the films the Gage’s produce, the subject of its story is based on environmental and social justice. At the time, Beth and George were still in the midst of chronicling the story of Tim DeChristopher, a West Virginian climate activist and co-founder of the environmental group Peaceful Uprising, who’d spontaneously decided to disrupt a federal Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease auction in December of 2008. Bidding $1.7 million, DeChristopher won 22,000 acres of public land in southern Utah without the intention to pay or drill.
By the time I was meeting Beth and George, they had been following DeChristopher for two years as he awaited trial from an indictment for violation of the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and making false statements.
Three months after their visit, I received an email from George:
Beth and I met you at Pitzer after the screening of the trailer for “Bidder 70″ (The Tim DeChristopher Story). You expressed an interest in volunteering, if there was a need. Well, now there is a need for a PA in Salt Lake the weekend of the trial. If you were available, is there any way you can get to Salt Lake the weekend of the 26th of February? We can provide housing and a meal allowance. Thank you for your interest in this important film.
Unable to assist the Gage’s at the time, I was thrilled to see 18 months later that Bidder 70 made its New York debut at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in late June of this year. This was the Gage’s second film to be included in the HRW Film Festival, their first being American Outrage — a short documentary about two Shoshone grandmothers’ 40-year struggle for land rights — in 2008. Because there were only 16 films in this year’s festival, as George explained to me, “being included means you’re amongst a select group, and we’re really honored.” Assessed for both artistic merit and “human rights content,” the festival’s program committee reviewed more than 500 submissions for consideration. Once a film is nominated for acceptance into the program, another set of HRW staff view the candidates in order to confirm each work’s accuracy in portraying human rights concerns. Misrepresentation or any other form of bias thereof disqualifies entries. Michael Moore, for example, would never appear on the festival’s bill.
Beth happened upon DeChristopher’s story in her local Telluride, Colorado paper. In fact, this is how the Gage’s typically find the subjects for their films, with Beth credited as the film’s writer. “In just one afternoon, this guy took thousands of acres of land off the auction block; immediately we were interested in Tim,” she said. The thesis, as it were, of the Gage’s film is made clear in its opening with a Martin Luther King Jr. quote, “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly and with a willingness to accept the penalty,” foreshadowing the foregone conclusion of DeChristopher’s sentencing, which took place this time last year. Early on, it would seem that a film about climate activism in the face of corporate business quickly slips into a familiarly progressive brand of political documentary. Found footage of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, in addition to interviews with outspoken conservationists, such as actor Robert Redford and author Terry Tempest Williams, both Utah natives, seem all too predictable among the rest of the film’s roster of left-leaning talking heads. Obama takes office, and Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, cancels the 77 land leases issued under the Bush administration. At this point, U2 begins to play, as the hopeful voice of Bono gradually builds up into a crescendo of triumph. We’re no more than 10 minutes into the film. A false pretense, if there ever was one. Not only does DeChristopher openly criticize Obama’s legislative impotence, exclaiming in frustration, “Obama is the strongest president we’ve ever had, but we need someone stronger,” but the film also points out the negligence of the Obama administration in even so much as acknowledging, not to mention, defending, the merits of DeChristopher’s actions. George later confessed to me, after the film, “I’m really disappointed in Obama. I mean, I voted for him and I’ll vote for him again, but he hasn’t done…” his voice trailed off, while he shook his head.
What follows in the next 63-minutes of the film is an honest portrayal of a political awakening. While tracing DeChristopher’s ascent within environmental activism circles, in parallel to a personal emotional descent in the face of an impending prison sentence, the Gage’s offer an authentic view of political dissent. In his defense, DeChrisopher’s “ethical and necessary” impromptu actions are the catalyst of a fearless campaign to combat global warming. Viewers are afforded a rare partisan neutral presentation of a highly politicized topic. Further defying convention is how Bidder 70 quickly removes itself from the canon of environmental documentary — consisting of An Inconvenient Truth, of course, Who Killed the Electric Car?, and the like — by focusing on how DeChristopher puts civil disobedience into action. Instead of investigating how unlawful public land auctions happen in the first place, or why corporate greed is allowed to continue profiting from environmental degradation, the Gage’s documentary reveals an embodiment of political resistance in the unassuming form of DeChristopher. Ultimately, the highs and lows of DeChristopher’s protest efforts, judicial processing, and personal growth are a lesson that, “one person’s sacrifice is not enough,” according to Beth.
With an eventual total of nine trial date postponements, Beth and George admit that production lasted longer than expected, but with each delay came another opportunity to see DeChristopher create various means to rejecting the status quo. His three and a half year transformation from frustrated citizen to a model of civil disobedience unfolds through a series of ideas, which George tells me, DeChristopher improvised himself. DeChristopher becomes a co-founder of Peaceful Uprising, “a nonprofit collective committed to action to combat the climate crisis and build a just, healthy world,” in the words of their Web site. But while the group itself is an integral part of DeChristopher’s support base, it proves dissatisfying and counterproductive to the film’s overall effectiveness, especially in a scene during which some of its members stage a fictional trial, effectively social justice v. corporate America, to demonstrate how the art, music, and performance characterizing this organization are put into practice in the name of solidarity and community outreach. Not only vapid and tangential to the film’s more substantive chapters, but this scene also seems to affirm Conservative Republican criticism of Liberal Democrats as little more than misguided hippies stuck in the pipe-dreams of the ’60s. Later, DeChristopher retreats to his Appalachian hometown in West Virginia to see the devastation of mountain top removal. It is at this point in the film that we receive DeChristopher’s biographical background from his mother Christine, who reveals the origins of his environmental conscience. She describes how whenever DeChristopher was upset, she’d advise him to “head for the woods.” DeChristopher is a martyr to his principles, with the bitter irony of nature being both the cause and relief of his distress within the film.
It is he who introduces us to Larry Gibson, the only remaining landowner who’s refused to turn over his property to the federal government, who verbalizes the moral of the film’s story, resolutely remarking twice in succession to DeChristopher, “the movement is not a one day deal,” but its poignancy is overshadowed shortly thereafter by the film’s next auxiliary plot point. DeChristopher posts a solicitation on Craigslist seeking a new congressional district representative for Utah.
Once again, his actions begin innocently enough, as a playful joke, but rapidly develop into a full-fledge run for office, pitting the incumbent Jim Matheson (R) against a retired school teacher, Claudia Wright (D). The results of Utah’s Primary Election are a defeat for Wright, but more significantly, as the Gage’s camera captures, a disillusioning moment for DeChristopher. Sober in effect, though nonetheless, evidently drunk, he admits to a deeply personal defeat, “We’re probably fucked, and it’s too late to defend a livable future.” As the last of activities indirectly related to DeChristopher’s trial that is shown, it’s a climax of unease and one of the film’s several “reality checks,” as it were, of how the fight for justice comes at a cost, or two, or several. In the vein of the “personal is political,” these auxiliary plot points are how the film transcends the issue of climate change to offer a broader insight into the unglamorous, and often disheartening, exercise of political freedom.
Believing his trial can serve as a soapbox, DeChristopher refuses a plea bargain in exchange for the opportunity to state his politics in front of a jury. The naivety of this wishful thinking raises a philosophical question about the ramifications of civil disobedience: “are you more impacting as a prisoner or as an organizer?” It’s a debatable point that sets off a brief consideration of the graveness of prison life, including sound bites from others – -most notably Mahatma Ghandi — who’ve already served time for transgressions of the law similar to DeChristopher’s. Most frustrating about this particular chapter of the film is that despite his undergraduate economics education (he was a student at the University of Utah in 2008), DeChristopher remains certain in peaceful protest as an effective force against corporate interest. It would seem that he would know better than to think the same people who’d condone an illegal land auction would also be susceptible to environmentalism ideals. It’s an oversight committed by both the film and DeChristopher himself. As much as DeChristopher wants to believe he’ll prove to be an exception to the judicial process, able to woo jurors into a revolutionary turn of mind, his grim reality is already known by the audience and consequently, feels futile, rather than heroic. By the time we’ve been convinced of his convictions and the extreme lengths he’s willing to go to in order to defend them — i.e. imprisonment — the film offers an introspective look at its protagonist, as DeChristopher reflects on the evolution of his leadership by quoting recently deceased author Ray Bradbury, “You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” Candidly, he describes how he “jumped right into it not knowing I’d be good at it.” As a film intended to galvanize its viewers into action, Beth and George could not have happened upon a more relatable character than the dubious and modest DeChristopher.
Up to this point, a handheld camera has been tracing DeChristopher’s strides and setbacks to constitute the film’s expressively dynamic tone. Access to document him came through a series of unexpected correspondences with mutual acquaintances. The Gage’s were eventually able to meet and convince DeChristopher to let them follow him. However, as George tells me, he and Beth had to comply with some conditional terms, “Tim is a very private person. We couldn’t film his family, and he didn’t want us to have anything do with his father.” Despite the caveats, and DeChristopher’s reserved nature, George is present the morning of DeChristopher’s long-awaited court appearance — April 18th 2011 — to offer the film’s most intimate scene inside DeChristopher’s home. The drama proves inherent. Aside from George and DeChristopher, the house is empty. The camera stands idly by as a noticeably quieter, and apparently anxious DeChristopher admits, “It didn’t hit me until just yesterday how real this is.” We’re watching him as he somberly makes a sandwich in his kitchen; the rustling plastic bag of sliced bread and the sizzling of grilled cheese are the only sounds interrupting silence. He sits down and with each crunchy bite of his “last meal,” we can’t help but feel the gravity of these final moments of freedom dwindling down. “I’m not ready,” he says.
During the question-and-answer session immediately following the film, it would seem that the festival’s commitment, to “bring to life human rights abuses through storytelling in a way that challenge each individual to empathize and demand justice for all people,” had been met. One audience member was irate, and so personally moved by DeChristopher’s story that he emphatically implored the Gage’s to seek out an appeals lawyer exclaiming, “We need to help him; I’m very concerned and it’s important to get him out of jail!” This same gentleman then met with the Gage’s after the Q&A to give them a list of names and numbers he’d prepared. It was an instant testament to the power of political cinema, and is the kind of positive reinforcement that sustains humanitarian documentary work. Dylan Schneider, a member of Peaceful Uprising, offered answers about DeChristopher’s current status and probable future. “He’s hoping to be released early for good behavior, but his current date for release from prison is April 2013,” he stated. Kaela Bamberger, a self-described environmental activist, was among the younger viewers in attendance and was left wondering, “How do you appeal to those who don’t already agree with this?” She cited how the film was problematic in alienating those not already in agreement with DeChristopher’s or the Gages’ politics, and didn’t offer enough of a rationale for why climate justice is “common sense.” It would seem Bidder 70 is guilty of preaching to the choir, as the film is devoid of any opposing viewpoint from those who discredit or are simply ignorant of the concept of climate justice. The film appeals to the viewers’ emotions, leaving us to wonder how DeChristopher could have been convicted, rather than questioning why more people don’t take similar action.
The political power of film is most often said to be in its ability to “spread awareness, “or “raise consciousness,” but the stated purpose of the HRW Film Festival is more nuanced, “to create a forum…to empower audiences with the knowledge that personal commitment can make a difference.” More specifically, the HRW Film Festival strives to feature exemplary cases of perseverance so as to sustain a collective faith in ourselves as powerful forces of positive change. It’s a refreshingly realistic lens through which to demonstrate an innate potential to fulfill political ideals. By documenting the human rights — the rights to life and health — implications of environmental degradation, Bidder 70 proves itself relevant to what George believes is so valuable about the HRW Film Festival explaining, “We need festivals like this; most festivals are afraid to put on real issue films — films with edge.” Beth echoes similar sentiments mentioning the importance of their film as “a vehicle to bring people together.” She harkened back to the Civil Rights Era during which she and George grew up, to elaborate on why they made this film, explaining that thousands had to go to prison, but nowadays, “people are afraid to take the kind of self-sacrificing measures Tim was willing to.” They wanted to tell DeChristopher’s story with the hope that his actions would arouse similar actions from those who see their film, or as one audience member put it, “to get kids to get with the program.”
To this end, documentary filmmaking itself has changed drastically from its passive cinema verite origins and a purely informational medium into a strategic means for advocating. It’s not enough just to be told about an issue, as an increasing number of humanitarian filmmakers want their work imbued with a sense of purpose and utility that will eventually make an impact, leave a legacy, and mean something. Films screened at the HRW Film Festival, and the like, have aspirations beyond the scope of their respective theater releases to arouse actions among its viewers. Throughout Bidder 70, DeChristopher gives several speeches filled with figurative language of fingers uniting as a fist, a mighty ocean of many waves, and spectators leaving the stands to rush the field ending the game, but perhaps the most quotable utterance from him is his most literal, “I don’t give a fuck about the planet; it’s about saving human lives.” I can’t help but wonder if maybe the HRW Film Festival should consider a new slogan.