Reviewed at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival.
There’s little doubt Ondi Timoner’s “Cool It” will grab most of the headlines at Toronto as the documentary to question the validity of global warming, but that might work in the favor of “Windfall,” a film that’s equally skeptical, yet wouldn’t benefit from high expectations.
Part of the charm of the debut doc from Laura Israel, an editor for the likes of Ed Lachman and Robert Frank in recent years, is the fact that it sneaks up on you, nearly as unassuming in its start as the farming town of Meredith, NY where the closest thing to conflict is the theft of a sign shaped like a cow by some local teens.
Save for Israel and cinematography Brian Jackson’s vivid depiction of Meredith’s landscape and the twang of electric guitars that serve as its score, the film’s opening promises sped-up shots of nature and talking heads optimistically musing about the potential of wind energy in their community. Yet it isn’t before long that Israel reveals that those wind turbines that sprouted up so inauspiciously throughout Meredith are churning far more debate in the town than actual wind.
Pitchforks aren’t drawn, but they might as well be as this presumably liberal enclave descends into heated disagreement over the towering 400-ft. windmills that are invading Meredith’s acreage, a byproduct of the farms’ desperation for cash and the opportunism of alternative energy companies to sign them up to agreements they couldn’t possibly understand the implications of since it’s still a developing technology. As a result, the residents of Meredith who didn’t sign up to have the windmills on their land are treated to the same constant grinding noise and vertigo-inducing shadows as those that did.
Some may argue the film is a bit one-sided since Israel never moves outside of Delaware County to find the opinion of experts who could play devil’s advocate, at least on camera, and putting in their place industrial videos that suggest the windmills are harmless. In fact, the only time Israel leaves Meredith is to interview folks in nearby Bovina and Andes who successfully fended off the advances of energy companies. (Not surprisingly, those communities also happen to be financially more secure.)
However, Israel’s limited scope is perhaps her ultimate show of confidence in her skills as a filmmaker. Considering that there are only so many ways one can shoot the swaying grass of Meredith or contentious town meetings, Israel’s Final Cut Pro abilities shine best as she zips and zags through maps, pictures, quilts and other ephemera that gives a real flavor for the town culturally and passes along information about the windmills in a way that seems as informal as the casual chitchat between neighbors.
Surely, this approach was inspired by the residents of Meredith, a well-educated bunch that has activism forced upon them rather than seek it out, who offer Israel a wide array of intriguing storylines. There’s Ron Bailey, a former (and final) director of photography at Life magazine, who is inspired to run for a town council seat after his frustration over the windmills lead he and his wife to think about abandoning their home of nearly 40 years. Likewise, one of “Windfall”‘s most pleasurable moments arrives when town supervisor Keitha Capouya mentions as an aside that she used to work for an encyclopedia company, which allows her to separate fact from fiction fairly quickly where the energy companies are concerned.
Of course, blind faith is what got Meredith in their predicament, so it’s equally foolish not to question what Israel is presenting, but her case is so well-built from the socioeconomic underpinnings that led farms to pursue alternative profit streams to the devastating impact on families and neighbors something as simple as a ill-placed windmill can have on a community that it’s hard to drive past those hills lined with turbines again without wondering about who is being affected by it.
“Windfall” does not currently have U.S. distribution.