Monday, January 30, 2012

Green Sleaze: Laura Israel's WINDFALL tracks wind energy in upstate New York

How disappointing is the experience of viewing WINDFALL, the award-winning documentary by longtime editor and now filmmaker Laura Israel about the coming of wind energy to a small farming town in upstate New York? Hugely. And I don't mean the movie itself -- which seems the very model of a smart, thoughtful documentary about a timely and important subject. No, I am speaking of the reaction that many of us who thought we were "green" -- welcoming all forms of safe and effective alternative energy -- are likely to have after experiencing this 83-minute movie. It will turn many of our preconceptions upside down.

Ms Israel, shown at right, starts slowly, introducing us to the townfolk of Meredith, New York, one by one or two by two. They all seem like such nice people, and indeed they were until a certain company dedicated to installing windmills in upstate New York came calling. The manner of this calling is on the individual person or family, and when any interest is shown, the company requires a confidentiality agreement to be signed. Why? We soon discover that the reason is damned sleazy. When word gets out, as of course word does in a small town, neighbor is soon pitted against neighbor, as some of the less trusting townspeople want to know many more facts and explanations than are being provided.

The one young man who represents the company (and has since parted ways with it), does seems like a decent sort (perhaps this is why ways were parted), and as we learn more of the facts about the windmills to be installed (they are 400 feet high and are to be built awfully close to the surrounding buildings), we also learn about some other communities in New York State and abroad in which windmills have become the bane of residents' existence: health problems, noise pollution, sleep deprivation and so on. ("Imagine, one fellow tells us, "your vacuum cleaner running right beside your bed all night!")

How can all this be? Wind energy is green, after all! Yes, and so is the money that (oh god, here they are again) corporations and shadow banks are making (as well as enjoying heavy-duty and repeated tax breaks) from the construction and operation of the windmills. And yet it seems that the town of Meredith is deeply divided over allowing wind energy into its midst. We hear from various people on this subject, and get to be flies on the wall at town council and planning board meetings. Finally it becomes a question of, if possible, kicking the bums out and voting in a entirely new slate of town leaders in order to stop this incursion. And yet, not all of the pro-wind townsfolk are bums. Many have been good, solid citizens for years, though Ms Israel manages to let us see the conflicts-of-interest that appear to have attached themselves to some elected members of the council who are also -- surprise! -- among the most prosperous of the town's population.

In a sense, little Meredith is a microcosm of big America, where money walks, talks and rules. We're there for all of it, thanks to Ms Israel and her crew, and we come away from the ordeal, I think, a lot wiser than we went in. We can be for "green energy" (god knows, the Meredith residents still are) but done on a scale that matches the community. I was sorry that Ms Israel did not stop the soundtrack's music or commentary long enough to let us simply listen to what one of these windmills sounds like from inside a nearby home. Otherwise, however, she's given us plenty to chew on and mull over. Perhaps it's time for a new rendition of the ever popular British folk song Greensleeves. This time out, it's Green Sleaze, with lyrics to match: Alas, my love, ye do me wrong, to build yer windmill so close to town...

Windfall, with theatrical distribution via First Run Features, opens this Friday, February 3, in New York City at the Quad Cinema and in eight more cities over the next couple of months. Click here for all currently scheduled playdates.

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