May 5, 2011
Opinions, U.S.

Windfall, directed by Laura Israel

Carl F Gauze,

Grow up in the country, and you’re used to bad smells and dust and independent streaks a mile wide. Grow up in the city, and land that looks like Hobbiton should never change, at least not after you plunk down a stack of Franklins on a few acres with a view. But when the Green Energy wagon pulls up and offers to rent your ungrazable ridgeline, you might change your stance. In tiny Meredith, New York, wind energy splits a town in two, and the glossy public relations handouts turn into 40-story behemoths that emit gut-wrenching noise, interrupt the sun, and kill bats. Like the coal companies of a century ago, wind energy companies get unsophisticated farmers to sign long-term leases for a small stack of cash and huge future headaches. The contracts are protected by confidentiality agreements; the town’s people are effectively divided and unable to negotiate a fair deal for themselves. And when a windmill catches fire or throws huge chunks of ice a mile, there’s not much you can do except move away.

Israel takes her time telling the story of this blindsided small town. With verdant hills, cute cows and a tilt shift lens, the Catskills natural beauty slows down the story telling. We learn one bad thing about wind power every ten minutes or so as the locals give interviews that range from smug and self-righteous to cranky and pedantic. Clearly, these are good people who have entered into lopsided agreements, and the companies building these towers are sucking up tax breaks without providing real benefits to anyone but their investors. Still, this is a depressed area, the hundreds of dairy farmers a generation ago are now replaced by a handful of plow their niche fields. Becoming an industrial wind farm may not be any more attractive than having a coal mine move in, but it’s the only economic development available beyond refugees from New York City moving up to restore drafty farm houses. What does Israel conclude? Beware, you small towns, this could happen to you! Just because someone stamps the new word “green” on something, it might not be any better than that old word “brown.”

This film was screened at the 2011 Florida Film Festival:

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