Directed and produced by Beth Gage and George Gage / 73 minutes
On December 19, 2008, Tim DeChristopher walked into a controversial Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease auction in Utah and proceeded to win the bids on 10 parcels of land for a total of $1.8 million before he was removed from the premises. His action forced a do-over of the entire auction, and by the time it was rescheduled 30 days later, Barack Obama had taken office and newly appointed Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar invalidated the proposed lease sales, saying the BLM had failed to follow its own rules, including a requirement that it assess the climate impacts of any public land auctions that involve energy development.
DeChristopher, an economics student and environmental activist, was convicted more than two years later of two felonies. In his final statement at his sentencing on July 26, 2011, before being taken away in chains to prison, he said, “At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.”
Bidder 70, a documentary by Beth and George Gage, brings us DeChristopher’s story, from his calm statement to reporters on the day of the auction that he was unrepentant through his cofounding of the environmental group Peaceful Uprising, through the multiple postponements of his trial and through his realization on the day of his sentencing that he might be taken into custody that day.
Throughout the film, DeChristopher comes through as he does in person—articulate, open, vulnerable, deeply passionate about doing whatever it takes to save the planet and realistic about the chances of success. He never second-guesses himself, although his action, undertaken at the spur of the moment, cost him two years of legal battles and another two years of incarceration.
He is a gifted and inspiring speaker; I was brought to tears by the scene after his conviction, when he addressed supporters outside the courtroom (many of whom went on to get arrested that day):
Everything that went on inside [the courtroom] tried to convince me that I was alone and that I was weak. They tried to convince me that I was like a little finger out there on my own that could easily be broken, and all of you out here were the reminder for all of us that I wasn’t just a finger all alone in there, but that I was connected to a hand with many fingers that could unite as one fist, and that that fist could not be broken by the power that they have in there. That fist is not a symbol of violence. That fist is a symbol that we will not be misled into thinking we are alone. We will not be lied to and told we are weak. We will not be divided, and we will not back down. That fist is a symbol that we are connected and that we are powerful.
Perhaps his most important message, however, is a point he makes early on in the film. “We don’t need to figure out how to keep me out of jail. We need to figure out how to get more people into jail.” As the Keystone XL Pipeline comes closer to being a fait accompli, I wonder if enough of us have Tim DeChristopher’s courage to face prison and more, because that’s what it’s going to take to save this planet.
Bidder 70 is playing through Thursday, May 24, at New York City’s Quad Cinema. For more information, see bidder70film.com or peacefuluprising.org. For a Q-and-A with Tim DeChristopher after the Woodstock, NY screening of the film, see here. Film credit DeeDee Halleck.