SUNDANCE DOCS: FIELDS OF FUEL and IOUSA
Tuesday at Sundance I saw two documentaries back to back that each deals with one of this country’s most pressing and complex political issues. Josh Tickell’s Fields of Fuel tackles America’s reliance on imported fossil fuels while Patrick Creadon in his follow-up to Wordplay, IOUSA, wrestles with the exploding United States budget deficit.
Both films employ what is now a familiar doc style of exploring political and social issue subject matter: quick editing, talking heads, a chapter-by-chapter structure, use of humorous archival material, and energetic source cue-driven montages. Of the two films, Fields of Fuel is the slicker. It segues from a first-person history of its maker, an Australian-born alternative fuel activist, through a history of the fossil fuel industry to an upbeat final section that demonstrates the feasibility of converting to alternative fuel sources, most notably, biodiesel fuel that can be manufactured from everything from vegetable oil to, one day, algae.
We’re first introduced to Tickell as he tools across the country in a biodiesel-fueled hippie van, filling up each night at a fast-food restaurant by siphoning used frying oil. After quickly interjecting a note of personal tragedy (his mother suffered nine miscarriages after she moved the family to “a cancer corridor” in Louisiana where illness rates have spiked due to oil industry pollutants), Tickell proceeds to hopscotch through a dizzying set of facts and histories. The invention of the diesel engine; the growth of the oil industry from Standard Oil to Exxon; global warming; the financial health of the US. auto industry; government tax subsidies to fuel-inefficient vehicles; hybrid cars; 9/11 and U.S. energy policy; the Iraq War; peak oil; ethanol; solar power; green start-ups — all are covered in Tickell ’s breathless montage. Like Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth, Fields of Fuel tempers its alarmism with a final emphasis on the positive and the possible. I knew little about biodiesel fuel going into this movie and I left impressed with how much has already been done in both the States and around the world to implement it and other practical new forms of energy.
As a filmmaker, Tickell knows how to cleverly structure non-fiction subject matter. Early in the film he employs a clip from the TV show Dallas, discussing how the program presented to him as a child in Australia a fantasy vision of the U.S. Later we meet Dallas star Larry Hagman, who now powers his home through solar power and is a critic of the oil industry his show so glamorously depicted. Tickell is usually one-step ahead of viewers, anticipating and countering the questions we’ll inevitably pose in our minds as the film progresses, although he doesn’t address recent arguments by environmental groups, including Oxfam, who argue that biodiesel fuel production contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and increases world poverty.
In terms of its moviemaking, Fields of Fuel has its occasional faults, which mostly occur when Tickell clumsily tries to illustrate the coolness of biodiesel energy. Shots of smiling kids testifying as to how great biodiesel fuel smells, a “hipper than Hasselhoff” German biodiesel activist rapper and, most egregiously, two music-video styled sequences in which Tickell attempts to co-opt patriotic post-9/11 imagery in service of his eco-cause have the creepy enthusiasm of “morning in America” campaign ads. And the soundtrack contains so many sentimental songs of uplift – obvious tracks from Moby, Sheryl Crow and the soundtrack of Heat, for example – that it sometimes feels T1’d-in in from the lobby of a W Hotel. But for the most part, Fields of Fuel is an achievement, an energetic and entertaining doc that not only informs audiences but also leaves them with a concrete vision of how to advocate saner public energy policies while implementing practical changes in their own lives.
Compared to the issues discussed in Creadon’s doc, America’s reliance on foreign oil seems like a minor problem. IOUSA deals with not just the U.S. budget deficit but also related topics ranging from America’s trade deficit and savings shortfalls to our shrinking dollar and loss of global economic leverage. Like Tickell, Creadon zippily cuts from a range of interview subjects, including taxpayers, government officials and, also, annoyingly, clueless kids who are asked to guess how big the budget deficit is (answer: $8.6 trillion). The film’s human through line comes in the form of U.S. Comptroller General David Walker, who lectures across the country about the catastrophe awaiting future generations of Americans if the U.S. doesn’t begin to balance its budgets and reduce its deficit. The film also focuses on the activities of the Concord Coalition, an advocacy group comprised of members of both the centrist Brookings Institution and the right-wing Heritage Foundation – political opponents brought together by the looming disaster.
IOUSA is most successful when it finds ways to entertainingly and concisely convey decades of economic history through animated charts, archival photos, and, even, a Saturday Night Live skit. In one sequence a penny is rolled up and down a rollercoaster of a bar graph, illustrating how the budget deficit expanded and sometimes contracted across wars and social program expansions. But while Creadon references some of the customary explanations for the budget deficit, he mostly analogizes the U.S. to the proverbial maxed out consumer who can’t stop spending until his credit card implodes.
IOUSA’s press notes state, “This film is not an endorsement of any political party or political candidate,” and indeed, Creadon’s film initially appears non-political and intended to simply raise awareness about the deficit issue. But here’s the thing — framing a discussion of the health of the U.S. economy by focusing solely on the budget deficit is inherently an idelogical act. “Deficit hawks” can be found all across the political spectrum, but they are most often found on the right and among those seeking to cut social spending and entitlement programs. (Indeed, the recently passed Medicare prescription drug benefit is given a few whacks in IOUSA.) The film is “inspired by” Empire of Debt, Bill Bonner and Addison Wiggins’s book that discusses the U.S. debt crisis from a right/libertarian viewpoint and places it within a larger critique of America as an “empire” that has overextended itself in both domestic and foreign policy. Creadon has left out most of the book’s “America as empire” argument, but he has uncritically embraced their argument regarding the deficit. You’d never know from IOUSA that not every economist is as worried about the deficit as Walker is. In fact, the word “Keynes” – as is John Maynard Keynes, the economist whose work discussed the economic benefits of deficit spending, is never uttered in this doc. Also not included are any of the many contemporary academic economists who might argue against the film’s theories. There’s no real discussion of the large deficits of other Western nations as a percentage of their GDPs, and while the trade imbalance with China is talked about, more nuanced globalist arguments that look at the interdependency between U.S. borrowing, the American consumer, and the development of the Chinese as a trading partner are not. Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin is interviewed, and the film salutes the Clinton administration for managing revenues and spending in order to balance the budget… without mentioning the technology-fueled economic boom that led to the increased taxed revenues that allowed the budget to be balanced during this time. And because the film avoids ideology, that also means that it avoids politically charged but necessary discussions of just how our deficit got to where it is today. You won’t hear in this doc anything about “starving the beast,” the phrase describing right-wing efforts during the Reagan era to deliberately create a deficit crisis in order to force cuts in social spending.
But the film’s refusal to present more than one side of the deficit issue is not its most problematic element. I don’t have to agree with every aspect of Creadon’s deficit doom mongering to accept that, in the absence of a crystal ball, his is a valid argument. IOUSA’s main problem concerns its final message to its viewers. Let me back up. I suspect that if you ask the average man on the street if the U.S. should have a balanced budget, that person would say yes. Ask if that person’s Social Security payments should be reduced, or if his taxes should be raised, or if a favorite government program be axed and you’d get a different response. IOUSA throws around terms like “leadership” when discussing how we get out of the deficit mess, but it doesn’t include a discussion of the types of initiatives a real leader on this issue would be forced to propose. It concludes by simply imploring readers to “write their elected officials” and demand that the deficit issue be addressed. Unlike Tickell’s film, which ends with a detailed breakdown of how we can wean ourselves from foreign oil, IOUSA punts when it comes to the public policy specifics needed to resolve the problem as the film formulates it. (Indeed, in a recession, which we are probably in right now, cutting the deficit by the obvious methods — decreasing spending or raising taxes — is probably disastrous economic policy.) The only clue as to just what kind of deficit strategy is recommended by Creadon, Walker, Bonner et al comes, coyly, in the form of an end-title song:
Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to be Kind.”