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Windfall (2012)
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by Jay Seaver

"Tilting at wind turbines."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2011: "Windfall" was not quite the movie I expected to see. The usual narrative about wind power here in Eastern Massachusetts involves liberals who support green energy until it threatens to become a part of their expensive sea views, and though the movie seems to start from this perspective, it soon shows that wind turbines are becoming big business, with all the unsavoriness that can entail.

The film focuses on the town of Meredith, New York. It's a scenic place, although like many farming communities, it has seen more prosperous days. It does, however, feature strong and regular wind. An Irish power company, Airtricity, expresses interest in building some turbines there. One of the first people they make an offer to is Frank Bachler, a beef farmer who also serves as town supervisor, and who at least initially doesn't think it's a big deal until he mentions it to neighbor Ken Jaffee over coffee. Jaffe, a retired physician, isn't nearly so sanguine about this, and soon there are meetings being held, and an angry debate pitting neighbors against each other.

Certainly, a lot of what we see initially comes down to "Not In My Back Yard", but it soon becomes clear that NIMBYism isn't all that's at work. As townspeople and director Laura Israel dig deeper, they discover a number of concerns, both about the effect having these turbines in a community may have on the residents' quality of life and the entangled politics and business of building them. It turns out that there are many reasons to be skeptical about whether the benefits of wind farms outweigh their negative impact in many situations, and that's before getting to what appears to be an inherently corrupt system of private companies making generous offers to town leadership so that they will hopefully grease the way through the system.

It's good that there are so many different issues, because some may come across as unconvincing to certain members of the audience. Those who find a certain majesty in the tall, sleek machines are likely not going to be convinced by the shots and comments meant to portray them as a blight on the landscape, for instance, and Israel often will choose to emphasize anecdotal evidence over raw numbers. That's not necessarily a bad decision - it puts human faces on the issue - but it can open a movie up to charges that the filmmakers are cherry-picking their evidence (a shot of a collapsing turbine makes a fine point, but needs failure rates for context). Fortunately, there are sequences that make intellectual arguments as well as emotional ones, and those points are made just as clearly.

It's obvious from early on where the filmmakers stand, and the use of interview footage really hammers it home: Few opportunities are missed to go to Ralph & Sue Bailey, a sympathetic and friendly retired couple who initially signed a lease with an energy company but then changed their mind, and there seems to be great delight using the most blustery, self-centered ignorance of a turbine proponent they could shoot. This is blunted somewhat by showing opponents as occasionally being full of themselves or uncertain (nobody ever really wants to come out against wind power), as well as by the sheer amount and variety of arguments made.

It's not likely that each argument will be convincing to each viewer; fortunately, "Windfall" and its filmmakers vary their technique enough that they don't have to be. There's enough good information in there to make even those who go in expecting a story about clean energy and selfish obstructionists to come out, if not convinced, then certainly with something to chew on.

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originally posted: 05/18/11 12:13:41
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2011 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2011 series, click here.

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  DVD: 15-May-2012


  DVD: 15-May-2012

Directed by
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