During the trial of Tim DeChristopher, it wasn’t uncommon for supporters of the environmental activist to lament "This story isn’t being told," as they watched on to see his act of civil disobedience in which he bid on public, pristine land in his native Utah to prevent it from falling into the hands of oil and gas companies after it was made available at the end of the Bush Administration in 2008 spiral into a grotesque use of the legal system that led to his conviction in 2011.
"The real story certainly wasn't told in the trial," says George Gage, who with his wife Beth aimed to change that with the new documentary Bidder 70, which will open theatrically this week in New York and play across the country in the coming weeks.
Initially conceived as a short profile of DeChristopher, a wily, outside-the-box thinker with a knack for outsmarting the entrenched power of a government and private sector that’s become too intertwined, the Gages saw their film grow into a feature once the Obama Administration pursued a case against him. Certainly, they never could’ve predicted after they began filming in January 2009 that DeChristopher’s trial would be a rollercoaster, postponed nine times over the course of two years in which the auction was deemed by the government to be illegal.
"The judge would not allow the jury to know where the lands were, he wouldn't allow them to know the 27 other people in recent history have done this same type of thing without being indicted," says George Gage, who admits he could never get his head around how DeChristopher could be singled out for doing something unlawful in an auction that was itself deemed so. "The jury was pretty much in the dark. The instructions were basically did he sign that piece of paper saying he was oil and gas or did he not? And [Tim] would be the first one to admit that he did."
Yet even as the filmmakers follow DeChristopher through the paces of what appears to be an unfair trial and his time spent away from the courtroom where he witnesses firsthand the ravages of the kind of mountain top removal that would be involved on the land he’s trying to protect, Bidder 70 becomes as much about DeChristopher trying to push for more efficient activism as it is about what he’s trying to accomplish as an activist.
Building a unique coalition in the heart of one of the most conservative states in the union around an issue that cuts across party lines, the film shows how the University of Utah grad exploited his newfound notoriety to find other ways to make a difference, such as brilliantly engineering a strong political campaign for a candidate he recruited on Craigslist to challenge an incumbent Blue Dog Democrat that wasn’t progressive enough on environmental issues.
"Tim studied a lot and thought a lot about the state of the world before he took this action. When the opportunity at that auction presented itself, everything fell into place," says Beth Gage. "It wasn’t that he was saying, 'Somebody’s asking me to march in a march, I’ll do it. Somebody’s asking me to sign a petition, I’ll do it.' Tim was preparing himself to be an activist and was ready to take that next step. Other people should make themselves ready to step across the line when it makes sense to do that."
It’s advice the Gages have followed in their own lives, leaving behind a successful career making commercials for a more fulfilling one in documentaries such as “Bidder 70” about social justice.
"I hope that people take away the inspiration to become activists, to mobilize, to be motivated and not to wait for someone to tell them what to do, but to be more creative thinkers about how they can make a difference," says Beth Gage, whose film’s Web site lists no shortage of ways for people to take action. "We should be working together to make our presence really felt and our voices really heard."
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