Fields of Fuel, directed by Josh Tickell, is visually compelling and technically polished, which unfortunately bestows a veneer of legitimacy the film does not deserve.
Promotional films are stereotypically one-sided, ignoring or glossing over negatives while exaggerating and or fabricating positives. That is to be expected, but what set this film apart from your generic promotional film is Tickell’s success at manipulating viewers’ emotions.
The screening I attended at the Seattle International Film Festival received a standing ovation and apparently the same thing happened at Sundance earlier in the year. Some viewers, of course, were biodiesel devotees themselves, and for them this film was preaching to the choir — reinforcing what they want to believe. But many were simply curious and uninformed, which is what made them so vulnerable. Being intimately familiar with all aspects of biodiesel, both negative and positive, I found this film deceptive and manipulative.
Anyone who walked into this film knowing nothing about biodiesel would walk out of it wanting to race down to the local Volkswagen dealership to buy a diesel Jetta — only to discover that they have not been sold in the United States since 2006 because of air pollution limitations, and worse yet, that biodiesel is selling for $6 a gallon.
In this interview Tickell is asked, “I want to quickly get into a discussion about biofuel. That’s one of the primary themes of the movie, right?” His response:
The film is actually a green energy movie. And even more than that, it gets into the basis of war and peace. The thesis of the film is that energy is currently the basis for war while it could be the basis for peace. So it really looks at conflict energy vs. non-conflict energy, green energy vs. black energy. That speaks on so many different levels, but yeah, we do talk a lot about biodiesel because that’s the road trip that we take in the movie
Not quite. Going from memory, I’d say that roughly 5 percent of the film was spent talking about petroleum, 1 percent discussing hybrid cars, maybe that much on wind, and solar, and a little bit was spent bashing a competing biofuel, corn ethanol, which left about 90 percent of this film devoted to biodiesel. Note that the entire interview ends up being about biodiesel, and that is what occurs in the film as well. Tickell’s editors have managed to take the edge off of what is in reality, a long sermon on the wonders of biodiesel. The idea that biodiesel will end human conflict over resources is one of the most naive concepts I have ever encountered.
The guy crisscrossing the country spreading the biodiesel gospel in a brightly painted biodiesel-burning bus, or in Tickell’s case, a Winnebago, has become a dog-eared stereotype.
When does a passion spill over into something more? Tickell lives, breathes, and eats biodiesel. He spent years touring in a biodiesel powered Winnebago, has written two books on the subject, and repeatedly dips his finger into and eats biodiesel during the course of the film to which he devoted five years creating. The man has literally devoted his life to one specific type of fuel, which is a cruel twist of fate because his passion has turned out to be more environmentally destructive over all, and gallon for gallon to oil — leaving the food issue aside.
This film’s release happened to coincide with the recent backlash against biofuels, which was kicked off by a number of scientific studies and a food crisis. Bad timing. There is another shot of Tickell looking into the camera, again voice cracking, where he expresses his frustration with this backlash. Everything he has devoted his life to is being subverted.
Tickell uses everything he can get his hands on to promote biodiesel: The attack on the Twin Towers (actually the result of religionists with a righteous cause), the Iraq war (actually the result of a religionist with a righteous cause), our children, school buses, you name it.
The question and answer session after the film really had me wondering. In an attempt to indoctrinate our children, funds generated by the film (after being processed by a non-profit organization) will be used to distribute it for free to public schools and libraries.
We were told that emissions inside our children’s school buses are four times higher than outside the bus. As you might guess, along with being the answer to human conflict, biodiesel will also eliminate emissions inside school buses. In reality it would reduce soot 50 percent, while increasing NOx 10 percent. Where I live the emission issue is being handled by retrofitting new air pollution devices onto buses — making them 50 to 90 percent cleaner regardless of which fuel is used. Why our children are spending one-and-a-half hours a day on busses is another issue.
When he tells the audience that one of the companies shown in the film has closed its doors, a collective gasp arose. He fails to mention, among many things, that Willie Nelson, who is all over this film, has also sold off his shares in the company he was fronting, which has filed for bankruptcy.
He tells the audience that a diesel Golf gets 55 miles-to-the-gallon whereas the gasoline version gets only 30 — which is a bit of an exaggeration, to put it mildly — and that biodiesel is 78 to 98 percent carbon neutral, and on, and on.
He finally gets to the “well-funded media” conspiracy theory and tells us that the real motivation behind one of the conspirators, the Grocer’s Association, is to lower the cost of food! An uncomfortable silence followed that comment, suggesting that not everyone in the audience was brain dead.
The film was to be kicked off by a parade of biodiesel cars driven by local enthusiasts. I realized the cars had arrived only when the air filled with soot and the odor of burned vegetable oil. Duff Badgley and his motley crew were on hand with a banner quoting a former United Nations food expert, “Biofuels are a crime against humanity.” A woman approached the protestors and asked them not to protest in front of the theatre. She told them they were welcome to come see the film but not to expect a free ticket. Soon Tickell himself appeared along with a few others to tell the protestors that they should check it out to see for themselves. They eventually handed out free tickets (although well-attended, the show was not sold out). I was the only one who took them up on the offer, everyone else — assuming the film would be what it actually turned out to be — passed on the offer.
Poking around on the internet I also found this old National Geographic video. The interviewer says ” … he has worked out that if he uses soy bean oil, his veggie car gets about 1,300 miles per acre …” That translates to about ten acres a year. Reality can be whatever we want it to be. Look at the smoke pouring out of the car as it drives away.