Jailed environmentalist Tim DeChristopher fills a new documentary with shining examples of creative civil disobedience.
In 2008, the soon-departing Bush administration placed the oil and gas rights to 116 parcels of pristine public land in Utah’s wilderness up for auction. Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher attended the auction and, wielding auction paddle number 70, bid nearly $2 million for drilling rights to 22,500 acres. DeChristopher had no intention of paying for his purchases. His bids were a classic act of civil disobedience.
During DeChristopher’s subsequent trial on two felony counts of interfering and making false representations, supporters of the environmental activist viewed what they saw as a grotesque misuse of the legal system, culminating in DeChristopher’s 2011 conviction and two-year prison sentence, and lamented: “This story isn’t being told!”
Filmmaker George Gage, with his wife Beth, aims to remedy that lapse in the new documentary Bidder 70, which opened theatrically in New York recently and will play across the country in the coming weeks.
“The real story certainly wasn’t told in the trial,” George tells TakePart.
The Gages initially conceived of Bidder 70 as a short profile of DeChristopher. The former wilderness guide was a wily, outside-the-box thinker with a knack for outsmarting the entrenched power of a too intertwined government and private sector—an excellent subject for a 20-minute exploration.
However, once the Obama administration pursued a case against their charismatic subject, the Gages saw the profile piece grow into a feature.
At the beginning of filming, in January 2009, the couple never could have predicted the rollercoaster trajectory of DeChristopher’s trial, postponed nine times over the course of two years, a span of time in which the very auction DeChristopher had disrupted was deemed by the government to be illegal.
“The judge would not allow the jury to know where the lands were,” says George Gage. “He wouldn’t allow them to know that 27 other people in recent history have done this same type of thing without being indicted.”
Gage never has fully wrapped his head around the reasoning that prosecuted DeChristopher for doing something “criminal” to impede an auction that was itself deemed unlawful. “The jury was pretty much in the dark. The instructions were basically, ‘Did he sign that piece of paper saying he was oil and gas or did he not?’ And [Tim] would be the first one to admit that he did.”
“Tim studied a lot and thought a lot about the state of the world before he took this action. When the opportunity at that auction presented itself, everything fell into place.”
The filmmakers follow DeChristopher through the paces of what appears to be an unfair trial and track his time outside the courtroom—where he witnesses firsthand the ravages of the kind of mountain top removal that would be involved on the land he’s trying to protect. Bidder 70 becomes as much about DeChristopher pushing for more-efficient activism as it is about any single result he’s trying to achieve as an activist.
The film shows the University of Utah grad capitalizing upon his newfound notoriety to build a coalition that cuts across party lines in the heart of one of the most conservative states in the union, exemplified by his brilliant engineering of a political campaign for a candidate recruited on Craigslist to challenge an incumbent Blue Dog Democrat who wasn’t progressive enough on environmental issues.
“Tim studied a lot and thought a lot about the state of the world before he took this action,” says Beth Gage. “When the opportunity at that auction presented itself, everything fell into place. It wasn’t that he was saying, ‘Somebody’s asking me to march in a march; I’ll do it. Somebody’s asking me to sign a petition; I’ll do it.’
“Tim was preparing himself to be an activist and was ready to take that next step. Other people should make themselves ready to step across the line when it makes sense to do that.”
The Gages have followed their own advice, stepping away from a successful career making commercials and toward a more fulfilling vocation in social justice documentaries, such as Bidder 70.
“I hope that people take away the inspiration to become activists, to mobilize, to be motivated and not to wait for someone to tell them what to do, but to be more creative thinkers about how they can make a difference,” says Beth Gage. Her film’s Web site lists several ways for people to take action. “We should be working together to make our presence really felt and our voices really heard.”
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