Tim DeChristopher describes what he did as “jumping off a cliff and building wings on the way down.”
In 2008, the socially conscious economics student turned up to protest the leasing of public land in Utah to oil and gas companies. When he found himself being herded into the auction itself, DeChristopher improvised one of the greatest acts of civil disobedience in recent memory: he secured 22,000 acres of land with $1.7 million he didn’t have.
In their film, Bidder 70—which opens this year’s edition of the World Community Film Festival at Langara College, on Friday (February 15)—filmmakers Beth and George Gage follow DeChristopher for three years as his trial on two federal indictments looms, capturing his growth as he grapples with the meaning and consequences of his action. “Peter Yarrow is a very good friend of mine, from Peter, Paul, and Mary,” George Gage tells the Straight in a phonecall from Telluride, Colorado. “And Peter said, ‘You could have easily called this film The Birth of an Activist.”
The veteran filmmaking team were aware of DeChristopher’s story when they happened to meet at a film festival in Nevada City. “We made a deal with Tim to follow him around and see where the story went,” Gage says, explaining that DeChristopher—while being pitched by numerous other filmmakers—was impressed with the Gage’s ongoing relationship with Western Shoshone firebrand Carrie Dann, the subject of their film, American Outrage.
Explains Gage with a laugh, “He was thinking, ‘Wow, knowing how tough she can be, maybe they can put up with me for a couple of years.’” And so began Bidder 70. “A couple months later, we get a phonecall from Tim and we were shocked to learn that the Obama administration was going to indict him,” continues Gage. “And that’s when we realized that this wasn’t just a story about someone stopping a one-time oil and gas lease auction. And then as the government kept postponing trial date after trial date after trial date, we realized we were on to a very big story.”
The U.S. government was clearly bent on making an example of DeChristopher, while trying to slalom around spikes in public opinion caused by events like the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf. It took two years and nine trial postponements before he went before the judge. Ironically, with the Gages monitoring the whole time, this is when Tim DeChristopher the public figure was really forged.
“Instead of sitting around, he would constantly be getting involved, whether it was mountaintop removal in his home state of West Virginia or trying to get rid of the Blue Dog Democrat in Salt Lake City, Jim Matheson,” Gage says. On his journey, DeChristopher meets with climatologist James Hansen, the IPCC’s Terry Root (whose dire forecast of eco-doom initially got his wheels spinning), and the amazing Larry Gibson, who battled coal companies in West Virginia for decades until his death last year—all of it captured on camera, as was the dramatic courtroom dénouement and the extraordinary speech DeChristopher improvised to a crowd of supporters on the way out.
“He made that up on the spot,” Gage says. DeChristopher told him, “It just came out of me, I was just so filled with emotion.”
Tellingly, DeChristopher states more than once in the film that “we’re probably fucked” as far as climate change scenarios go—but the need for creative resistance and network building remains critical to him. “I think Tim’s an optimist,” offers Gage. “And even though he says, ‘We’re fucked,’ I think he’s trying to ignite people… knowing him the way I do, I think he has an optimistic attitude even though he’s a realist.”
Bidder 70 screens with Catherine Murphy’s moving documentary short Maestra, in which she interviews some of the women who traveled into rural areas to carry out the Castro’s 1961 literacy campaign in Cuba. For the full schedule, visit the World Community Film Festival website here.