TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: WINDFALL
After reading a few small articles on wind energy in the Delaware County Times, the New York City-based video and commercials editor Laura Israel, who retreats to a 16’ by 16’ cabin outside the town of Meredith in said county, thought she might do something for the green movement and get a wind turbine—and not have to pay for electricity in the bargain. “I went on the internet and realized, ‘Wind energy is not what I thought.’ I was editing at a place where a guy was doing a tv segment on it as part of green. I told him he should do more research, and he started yelling at me: ‘Do you want a nuclear plant?’ I realized it was a touchy subject. I became suspicious and thought I would look further.
“Then I started to meet some people from Meredith. A lot of them—artists, writers—go up there to be alone. This topic pulled them out of their shells to work together.”
So began Israel’s foray into directing, Windfall, an excellent documentary–a real discovery in Toronto–which is as much a study of a small rural community torn asunder as it is of the pros and cons of the massive turbines which energy salesmen were pitching to the locals. For a price, the residents could agree to let them build the massive structures on their land. In a town with no zoning, the reps from an energy outfit in Ireland anticipated huge profits.
Even though Delaware County is one of the five poorest in New York State, other towns were not as easily seduced as some of the homeowners in Meredith, who signed contracts for a relative pittance. Most of those who agreed had been born there, former dairy farmers hard it by the economy and changes in agrarian commerce. Most of the opposition was comprised of former or current residents of New York City, whom the lifetimers, according to Israel, call “flatlanders.” The feud became bitter, culminating in a new slate of candidates vying in a coming municipal election for the offices long held by lifers. The lines were drawn; the debate became more and more bitter.
“I don’t think it was like that before the subject came up,” says Israel. “There are no chi-chi boutiques there; it’s not that kind of town. It seemed like everyone got along. This subject pushed people into corners.” The lead-up to the election gives the film rhythmic, suspenseful momentum.
Israel interviews her subjects outdoors, capturing a natural, unforced bucolic backdrop enriched by a plucky, country-tinged score. Most of them have interesting back stories that provide digressive texture. Stop-motion animator Dean Modino brings alive maps, photographs, and, building up over the course of the film’s running time, the wind turbines themselves, already cinematic by design. As one relative newcomer to Meredith says, “These are not the 50’ windmills of Don Quixote. These are 400’ high.” Each blade is 130’ long, weighs seven tons, and moves at 150 miles per hour. The whishing noise is non-stop, and much worse when it rains.
The well-informed interviewees who stood against the turbines articulate their positions, as do several environmentalists and energy experts. When erected too near peoples’ homes, the turbines wreak emotional and psychological havoc on the residents. Tug Hill, in Lowville, New York, is one place where 400 of them were built, and the townspeople have found them oppressive. One subject says that to be built and maintained, they require fossil fuels, and it is questionable if the amount that they put back into the grid is worth the effort. Green and wind energy may be mutually exclusive terms.
Israel is the first to say she does not offer definitive answers. “I’m just asking people to look into it more. I know there’s a lot going on in Europe, even in Denmark. People there are asking if there really is that much power coming from the wind turbines.
“We want desperately to have easy answers. Then all you have to do is send in some money and someone else can take care of it.”