Windfall (Israel, 2010)

Windfall

Less of an indictment of wind energy companies (though it is that to some degree), Laura Israel’s documentary is mostly an affirmation of the democratic process.The citizens of Meredith, New York become polarized around a town council’s decision to ignore the recommendations of its planning committee and pass legislation which would allow wind turbines to be built on land owned by residents and leased to the companies. As a group of concerned citizens mobilizes to try to stop the construction, the film becomes an object lesson in politics (local and national), business (how much do the turbines cost? who gets the money?), environmentalism (how do you make a bat’s lungs explode?), public health, the power of information, ethics (what makes one a good neighbor), and, above all, human psychology. Can people disagree about what is right for the public good and still be friends?

I have long held that the most resonant part of An Inconvenient Truth for me was when Al Gore observes how quickly some people cycle from skepticism to despair. I felt myself going through a similar process while watching Windfall. As some of the more problematic aspects of wind energy were expounded by its detractors, I felt my natural pessimism grow. If not this, what? What the films does very effectively is show how our genuine concerns about the environment and energy consumption can combine with a psychological and ethical weariness as we are bombarded with more and more complex problems to create a desire for a magic bullet solution. That response in and of itself is more normal than venal, but when it causes us to stop listening, stop gathering information, stop looking for other, better alternatives, is when it becomes dangerous and we become prey to those telling us what we want to hear.

I asked director Laura Israel if, in screening the film, she had received a lot of criticism from audiences who become disillusioned or disenchanted and want to blame the film for not allowing them to remain in blissful ignorance. While acknowledging that some might have that response, she stated that the majority of the correspondence and comments she receives are about how “you could change the names and faces and this would be my town.” ¬†She wondered whether she should have more actively sought a wind energy spokesperson for the film but noted (as shown in the film) that the company or companies signing residents for lease agreements declined to speak at the community meetings and she ultimately wanted the film to be about the town. “I asked myself, ‘did it happen in the town?'” she said during a Q&A after the film. If it did, she tried to include that perspective in the film. She also noted that it was harder to get proponents of the wind turbines to speak on film because so many of them are required to sign non-disclosure agreements by the companies seeking to lease their land.

One trend I have noticed in responses to environmental films is for viewers to turn their frustrations at a situation towards the filmmakers who document them. The despair that Gore speaks of in An Inconvenient Truth can manifest itself in exasperation: “Well, what’s the answer then?” Putting the burden on a documentary filmmaker to solve the global energy crisis before he or she can provide information or critical analysis of an idea is, of course, an absurd standard. Still, it’s a real phenomenon confronting any documentarian wishing to speak about environmental issues. Windfall is ultimately more about the process than the solution. It is less interested in advocating a particular outcome for a particular town than it is in arguing that the best decisions are made corporately, that having information is more valuable than simply trusting that corporations or governments know best, that being a good neighbor means adopting a listening posture and asking how one’s own decisions affects the community.

Whatever the nature of our global energy problems, for a solution to be effective, Israel opined, “we all have to be invested in it.”

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