Charles Petzold

Two Outstanding Documentaries

May 17, 2013
New York, N.Y.

In December 2008 — between the election of Barack Obama and his inauguration — the Bush administration decided to give a farewell present to the oil industry by selling off drilling rights on parcels of public land in Utah's pristine redrock area. A 27-year-old environmental activist and University of Utah student named Tim DeChristopher showed up at the auction, was asked if he had come to bid, said that he was, and was given a bidding paddle with the number 70.

Tim DeChristopher then began bidding and had accumulated over $2 million in successful bids before the authorities realized he was there to disrupt the proceedings and had no intention of actually buying the land. He was arrested and charged with a felony for violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act.

Although the incoming Obama administration quickly recognized the impropriety of this auction and reversed the sales, they allowed the prosecution of Tim DeChristopher to continue. In the summer of 2011 Tim DeChristopher was convicted and served 21 months in a federal prison.

This story is chronicled in the short documentary Bidder 70, which opened today at the Quad Cinema in New York City and can be seen in other areas around the country. Much of the footage was shot between Tim DeChristopher's arrest and sentencing. It is an inspirational and thought-provoking film about conscience and non-violent civil disobedience. Tim DeChristopher himself in an ideal spokesperson for the movement to combat climate change — affable, articulate, principled, dedicated, with both an inner strength and a dynamic speaking ability. Also making appearances in the movie are James Hansen, Bill McKibben, David Harris (who served 15 months in prison for draft evasion during the Vietnam War), and Utah resident Robert Redford.

Non-violent civil disobedience has a long tradition in the United States. One of the most famous American essays is Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" (1849), which he wrote in protest of the Mexican-American War and slavery. The American Civil Rights movement was full of acts of non-violent civil disobedience, including Rosa Parks not giving up her seat on the bus, and sit-ins at segregated lunch counters throughout the South. Opposition to the Vietnam War was also characterized by civil disobedience, including resisting the draft and acts of vandalism such as those practiced by the Catonsville Nine.

One of the objectives in civil disobedience is to get arrested, and then pit the conscience and convictions of the individual against the authority of the state. Civil disobedience continues to be a powerful tool because authorities who prosecute these cases are incapable of acting otherwise. They can't give practioners of civil disobedience a free pass, even if they understand that they're on the wrong side of history. Few people today would choose to arrest and prosecute Rosa Parks, but that's only because we now clearly see the injustice and stupidity of the law that she violated.

Civil disobedience is serious stuff. It is not fun and games. The prosecutors and judge in the Tim DeChristopher case were very intent on setting an example and sending him to jail. In Bidder 70 we see Tim DeChristopher struggling with the alternatives of accepting a plea bargain and avoiding a long prison term, or pushing for a jury trial and taking his chances with a possible 10-year sentence. Can he be a more effective climate activist as a free man? Or will his sacrifice to serve a long prison term give him a moral authority and inspire others?

The power of Bidder 70 comes directly from Tim DeChristopher's courageous choices in following his conscience, and becoming a louder voice than ever before.

Stories We Tell is the first documentary film by actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley. I had previously seen her in movies as disparate as The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, The Sweet Hereafter, eXistenZ, and Splice, and recently saw her directorial feature debut Away from Her, but I didn't know much about Sarah Polley the person. Stories We Tell is mostly about Sarah Polley and her mother, who died when she was 11 years old, but we barely hear from either of them. Instead, Sarah Polley interviews her siblings, her father, and others about her mother — and eventually about the mysteries that surround her own birth.

From those who knew her, Diane Polley is remembered as a vivacious woman, quick to laugh and the life of the party, yet stuck in two marriages that seemed to inhibit her desire to persue her acting career as much as she would have liked. We also see numerous images of Diane Polley in silent home movies — or at least we think we do. As this documentary goes on, it becomes more apparent that this wealth of old footage was actually specially created for the documentary with actors, and some of it recreated by the people involved. (This becomes particularly obvious when we see a scene of Sarah Polley directing the actress who plays her mother in these simulated home movies!) At first this technique feels dishonest, but I came to accept it as legitimate. Film is a visual medium, so to create images for a factual documentary is just as legitimate as choosing words for a factual memoir. That these images are silent also helps us to accept them.

Yet at the same time, Stories We Tell is really about the elusiveness of absolute truth, as the title suggests. Everyone who tells the story of Sarah Polley's mother has a different viewpoint, and all these stories are sifted through the filter of interviews and editing, leaving us with an overall history that is of necessity very impressionistic but feels quite vivid.

This is a moving documentary that is also about the bonds of family as well as the deterministic power of DNA.