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Bidder 70: A film on taking direct action and the accompanying personal and political struggles that go with it

Arts Review

by Tim Groves

Bidder 70:  A film on taking direct action and the accompanying personal and political struggles that go with it

Once a month the Canada-wide documentary network Cinema Politica takes over Toronto's Bloor Cinema to hold a paywhat-you-can film screening.

Tuesday night saw the return of Cinema Politica to the Bloor for the start of its second year with Bidder 70, a film that follows environmental activist Tim DeChristopher in the aftermath of a unique and inspiring direct action that he undertook in his home state of Utah. It is a film about the trials and tribulations of a privileged man who took big risks for a cause he believes in.
 
On December 19th 2008, DeChristopher was present for the auction of an oil and gas concession held by Utah's Bureau of Land Management. While many of his friends were outside protesting the environmental destruction that would surely ensue, DeChristopher blended in with the auction, deciding on the spot to bid on the concessions himself, successfully acquiring 14 parcels of land - even though he did not in fact have the millions of dollars necessary to pay for the bids. The action led to his arrest. However, under pressure the federal government later cancelled many of the auctioned leases.
 
The narrative begins immediately after the auction, following DeChristopher as he faces up to ten years in jail. He continues to pursue activism during this time, and the film portrays a man full of conviction, who is both proud that he stood up for a cause and struggling with uncertainty about the tactics of  creating social change and the personal impact of a potentially lengthy jail sentence.
 
Ezra Winton, Cinema Politica’s Director of Programming, chose Bidder 70 in part because of its unflinching exploration of direct action tactics.
 
"It's a film that really gets into the motivations of someone who breaks the law for a greater cause, and therefore valorizes direct action political tactics but still shows the consequences - and that the man subjected to those consequences struggles and suffers without regret”, said Winton. He added: “It is [both] utopic and realistic at the same time.”
 
Unlike other empathetic portrayals of activists in media, Bidder 70 doesn't shy away from the internal dilemmas of those who take such risks. This makes it both a cautionary tale and a primer, as it highlights the struggles that emerging social justice advocates will come up against if they too use direct action as a tool.
 
DeChristopher is shown tackling significant questions. He is often full of hope, yet at moments in the film he appears devoid of it, exclaiming "We are probably fucked, it is probably too late to fight for a liveable future."
 
He questions whether his activism will have more of an impact within or outside of prison. He embraces electoral politics  and tries to elect a progressive democratic candidate, but then feels demoralized when the attempts fail. He is honest about being offered a plea bargain, but he also wants a jury to hear his case. At moments he seems ready to go to jail and at others he shows fear at the prospect.
 
Bidder 70 is well shot; its most evocative images come from a trip DeChristopher makes to his home State of West Virginia, where he witnesses the mining practice of mountain top removal taking place in an impoverished region. Although this part of the film plays only a small role in the story, it is one which leaves a strong impression on the spectator.
 
This film, however, doesn't avoid some pitfalls common to political documentaries, the most noticeable of these being the prominence of white voices. The role of Utah's native tribes in the resistance to oil and gas extraction is never discussed, and a spectator unfamiliar with Utah could easily believe that only white people live there.
 
The film paints the US environmental movement itself as a predominantly white movement. Although this may in large part be true, the lack of visual diversity does no service to emerging environmentalists of any race who are trying to figure out their place in the movement.  Stock footage of US President Barack Obama provided one of the only counterpoints to the faces in the film. 
 
Although the film narrative accurately portrays the aftermath and consequences of a successful protest action, I was left wishing that the story had also captured the auction taking place, seen DeChristopher’s arrest, and had painted in more detail the moments that led up to his decision. 
 
The film ends shortly after DeChristopher is taken into custody, and the credits inform us that he served 21 months of a twoyear sentence.  I was left curious at how the process of being in jail transformed him. Although it is not included in the film, Winton informed me that since his release DeChristopher has taken up prison justice activism.
 
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Bidder 70 is the first screening of Cinema Politica's second year at the Bloor Cinema. Upcoming pay-what-you-can Cinema Politica screenings at the Bloor:
 
*Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth*
Tuesday Oct 8th 6:30pm
 
*Ma Vie Réelle*
Tues Nov 12 6:30pm
 
*Insurgence*
Tues Dec 10th 6:30

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