FUEL: Social Issue Documentary Lives On!

Yes, that's the director's naked body.

Yes, that's the director's naked body.

If you see anything this week, SEE THIS FILM at limited engagement in NY and LA.

I am a documentary filmmaker because I want to change the world. That declaration is noble, arrogant, or foolhardy depending on how you look at it, but it’s what gets me up each day. When I consider all of the problems on this earth – inconsistent or misguided policy, mistreatment of other humans and animals, and millions of wrongful deaths wrought by greed and callousness – I don’t see how it is realistically possible for us who are blessed with plenty not to devote our lives to helping others. Whether this aid be small and impactful or large and plodding, I’ve always seen awareness and engagement as all-important and film as a vital tool to accomplish these ends.

I was impacted heavily in college by the rise of the social interest documentary. An Inconvenient Truth seemed to herald a new age of liberalism, and documentary — truth, even — was all of a sudden sexy. The model was infinitely appealing to someone yearning for change: speak to a populace who doesn’t know how uneducated they are about an issue, send out a call for change, and before you know it Congress is considering a bill and the world is reshaped anew. Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock ran the other end of the gamut, bringing their own (however abrasive) personalities into the equation. The creativity in this new genre could be limitless! What mattered was that documentary was sexy now, and it was headed for your living room.

Working in New York, however, I quickly became disheartened. For any important issue there were multiple documentarians and multiple documentaries. Thousands of poignant films with powerful calls to action sit on DVD shelves across this city, nearly dead on arrival. A glut of poorly received films was especially tragic when they were so important and impassioned — so true.

And then there were the films that did make it. It turned out that making a doc beautiful could suck out its substance and making it like a narrative could drain any semblance of objectivity. The social issue documentary was a cliché, and a damn funny joke. I saw Cash Crop, a rambling tale of hippies enjoying weed, making money off growing it, and wishing that government and big corporations would both care more about them (not considering the fact that legalization of marijuana would put all the home growers out of business.) When the movie transitioned without comment to a village destroyed by pollution I wondered in despair if my industry’s only trick was to put a pretty face on a laundry list of complaints.

Food, Inc. was another ultimate disappointment, sweeping across a complex web of government tyranny, corporate greed, and the failing of our capitalist system only to tack on a quick message of hope that left me pretty much hopeless.

Today, I have a renewed hope in our genre and the ability of film to stand up and Do. Fuel derives its optimism from the voice of director/actor/activist Josh Tickell, who has been fighting for adoption of biofuels for over a decade with a patient confidence and true passion for life. Even as he admits that his early work was fueled by hatred toward big oil, his style of activism shares no DNA with the entitled finger-pointing you may have seen elsewhere. In the Q&A after the movie he spoke to his own transformation from anger to excitement about environmental issues, and how this shift has mirrored the environmental movement as a whole; where being an environmentalist used to mean reacting to this oil spill or that abuse, shouting at Congressmen for each abuse, it is finally becoming less reactionary and more constructive. Environmentalists are, in large part, being handed the keys to our future and asked to come up with something good – and that shift is something this film rejoices.

The movie’s core is Tickell’s personal story as his family was affected by oil pollution and he came to define his own path of activism: at one point, he drove around the country several times in a truck powered by biodiesel. The inclusion of his family and dozens of other voices paints a human picture, while his crisp narration lays out the landscape with perfect precision. But most of all, the film tells us that there is hope, there has been change, and you can and will be a part of it, says the film.

I also learned a ton. Apparently the Supercapacitor battery is the future. People interested in environmental activism can meet for green drinks, a monthly meetup active in 610 cities that can bring as many as 400 people per meetup. The war on Iraq is very expensive and if we spent even a teeny fraction of that money on renewable energy we wouldn’t have an energy problem. Algae fuel is the future; it can be grown in vats in the desert, sucks CO2 out of our environment, burns clean, and smells like vegetables! Back in the day Republicans were less responsive to the filmmakers but these days the environment is a bipartisan issue.

If you can, GO SEE THE FILM! It will stay in NYC and LA for as long as they can fill seats, and with enough critical mass this is a film that shouldn’t have much trouble doing that. So thank you for a new hope for the genre; it’s refreshing and needed. Now Josh, do you think you can make a movie about healthcare?



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