This year’s April 22 celebration of Earth Day is a fitting tribute to Tim DeChristopher. The day before, the environmental activist will leave federal custody after two years.
He’s spent that time because he stuck up for Mother Earth, say two documentary filmmakers who tell his story.
Beth and George Gage chronicle DeChristopher’s civil disobedience and indomitable spirit in “Bidder 70,” one of 102 offerings at the eighth annual Durango Film festival, which began Wednesday and will run through Sunday.
“We were impressed because he cares so deeply about climate change and global warming that he was willing to sacrifice what it took to make his point,” Beth Gage said by telephone this week from Telluride, where the filmmaking couple has lived since late 1988.
On Dec. 19, 2008, during the waning months of President George W. Bush’s administration, DeChristopher entered an oil and gas lease auction for parcels that the Bureau of Land Management was offering in Utah’s redrock country near ecologically sensitive areas.
He jumped into the bidding, and ended up winning 14 drilling sites for nearly $1.8 million. He acknowledged he had no money. DeChristopher asserted the government auction in 2008 was illegal and that he was acting in civil disobedience.
The Obama administration later upended the auction, rescinding many of the parcels and denying them to winning bidders. Still, federal prosecutors indicted DeChristopher on felony charges of making false statements and violation of the Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Act.
DeChristopher faced 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines. But he refused to duck what he saw as his moral duty by plea bargaining and held out for a jury trial.
A trial date was postponed nine times, but he finally was sentenced on July 26, 2011. He spent time in federal prisons in Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Northern California, Littleton and, lastly, a Salt Lake City halfway house, where he’s scheduled to be freed April 21.
DeChristopher, now 31, is scheduled to speak by Skype for 45 minutes on April 22, George Gage said.
The Gages met DeChristopher by chance in early January 2009, only days after he was charged. He agreed to let them shadow him as events unfolded.
And so, “Bidder 70,” which refers to DeChristopher’s bidding card number at the lease auction, came to be.
The film focuses on its protagonist’s commitment to protecting the environment and concern about global warming. DeChristopher is filmed in conversations about his role in the broad effort to protect the environment and is followed to the rural haunts of his boyhood in West Virginia.
“We spent much more time than I anticipated,” George Gage said about the 73-minute documentary. “We planned a relatively short film, but it lasted four years in all.”
The Gages produced and directed television commercials and made feature movies before they turned to documentaries in 1993.
“It started one day when Beth said, ‘Let’s make a film with a conscience,’” her husband said.
The talents of the couple mesh. She picks the topic and does the narration. He’s in charge of the camera and sound work.
Among their seven documentaries are “American Outrage,” the story of two Shoshone sisters who battle the federal government for their land and human rights; “From the Ground Up,” which recounts the sacrifices of New York City firemen on Sept. 11, 2001; and “Fire on the Mountain,” the history of the 10th Mountain Division, organized in the middle of World War II to take on German and Italian troops in the snowy Alps.
Six of their seven documentaries have shown at film festivals in Durango. When it leaves Durango, “Bidder 70” is on its way to similar engagements in Sedona, Ariz., San Luis Obispo, Calif., and Washington, D.C.
“The Gages are competent professionals and make films of local interest and of interest in the West,” said Robb Brantley, program director of the Durango festival. “Their entries are not selected out of pity.”
Government officials would grant no direct interviews concerning DeChristopher, Beth Gage said.
The two statements from official sources that appear in “Bidder 70” were captured during public commentary, she said.
“We tried to get the government point of view,” she said. “They would set a date and then cancel.”
The numerous postponements of DeChristopher’s trial appeared to be another stalling tactic, designed to discourage protesters, Beth Gage said.
The timing of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the explosion of the BP oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 that ultimately released an estimated 5 million barrels of oil, was no time to try someone for wanting to protect the environment, she said.
The Gages were impressed by the age spread of DeChristopher’s supporters. They range from the older members of his Unitarian Church to the young people who help maintain Peaceful Uprising, the nonprofit that DeChristopher co-founded.
“He is a man of principle,” George Gage said. “He’s applied to Harvard Divinity School, but whether as an activist or in the ministry, he has a message that will only grow.”