Above All Else: SXSW Review

Above All Else SXSW Still - H 2014
John Fiege

Above All Else SXSW Still - H 2014

An inspiring, dramatic, and very timely eco-doc.

A Texas landowner and like-minded students face off against TransCanada's Keystone Pipeline.

AUSTIN — An excellent companion to Margaret Brown's The Great Invisible, which was awarded the jury prize in this year's Documentary Feature Competition, John Fiege's Above All Else chronicles not the aftermath of a petrochemical disaster but one community's attempts to stop the next before it occurs. Benefitting from a sympathetic protagonist surrounded by colorful characters, the film outshines many eco-docs in its often dramatic account of their attempt to halt progress of the controversial Keystone Pipeline. Pending decisions from the Obama administration about that project's fate make the doc especially timely, which should benefit any near-future theatrical bookings.

David Daniel spent decades as a gymnast and stunt man before retiring with his wife and newborn daughter to the woods of East Texas. Shortly after buying his acreage and moving in, he learned that surveyors were trespassing on his land. A month and a half later, as if they weren't already doing it, oil giant TransCanada wrote him a letter asking permission to survey.

As Daniel recalls and the film demonstrates, the firm employed similarly dishonest tactics throughout their dealings with him — from telling him they had all the permits necessary to build their pipeline from Alberta's tar sands to the Gulf Coast (they didn't, and so far don't, have permission to cross the border) to sending out private security men whose "Sheriff" uniforms implied their demands carried the force of law.

Early on, Daniel becomes sufficiently worried about the pipeline — part of a project that generates massive pollution on one end, carries the threat of spills along its route, and enables the globe's continuing fossil-fuel addiction — to mount protests and awareness campaigns. When those fail to generate political action, he commits to action in his own back yard.

Along with some spirited older women who live nearby ("the more I read" about tar sands, one says, "the pissed-offer I get") and idealists from a Texas university, Daniel starts training for serious acts of civil disobedience. We watch tense standoffs where volunteers lock themselves to big trucks moving pipe; we see kids who admit they have little experience with direct action as they teach themselves not to crack under physical bullying. Then comes the main event: The construction of a small village of treehouses, interlinked in such a way that they and their residents will be destroyed if TransCanada's tree-cutting machinery sticks to its threatened route.

The film does a fine job of capturing both the protesters' concern and the daunting odds they face. As months wear on, Daniel's family threatens to collapse under the pressure; senior citizens face the prospect of losing homes they worked all their lives to buy; students ask themselves just how much of their futures they're willing to risk for this. Without ever milking the material, Fiege finds plenty of drama.

The film devotes only enough time to the broader issues surrounding Keystone to justify its subjects' behavior; unconvinced viewers will need to look elsewhere to weigh the pros and cons. But wherever they stand on issues of oil exploration and use, it will be hard to disagree that corporations have vastly more influence over this debate than the principled few citizens who oppose them.

Production Company: Fiege Films

Director-Director of photography: John Fiege

Producers: John Fiege, Anita Grabowski, Christopher Lucas

Executive producers: Daryl Hannah, Julia Butterfly Hill, Janet Mac, Gillivray Wallace

Production designer:

Music:  Justin Sherburn

Editor: Leah Marino

No rating, 95 minutes