Bidder 70 is a stand-up-and-cheer documentary about an activist who made waves while sitting down. Shortly before the Bush regime left office W. leased vast swathes of federally-owned pristine acreage to developers for drilling and mining — an exploitation of public property intended to enrich energy companies. But there was an unexpected fly in the ointment: Due to what this documentary indicates was a case of mistaken identity by the authorities, Tim DeChristopher managed to infiltrate the December 19, 2008 Bureau of Land Management Oil and Gas Lease Auction in Salt Lake City. Acting, he says, “on the spur of the moment,” the 27-year-old became “bidder 70,” proffering almost $2 million for 22,000 acres of wilderness in the red rock country near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
There was only one problem. Far from being an energy or mining industry representative, DeChristopher was a University of Utah economics student who did not have the money to lease the dozen or so parcels he successfully bid upon. But by doing so in an effort to save the public land from being developed and exploited, he gummed up the works of the auction process.
For “disrupting” the auction, DeChristopher was indicted on two felonies and faced up to 10 years behind bars plus an almost $1 million fine. After Obama moved into the White House his new Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, directed the BLM and Interior Department not to accept the bids for 77 parcels near environmentally sensitive land. But the charges against DeChristopher weren’t dropped.
Bidder 70 reveals how conscience, consciousness and peaceful civil disobedience remain powerful weapons in the arsenal of dissent. Award-winning veteran filmmakers Beth and George Gage use archival footage of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, and the anti-Vietnam War movement —- including shots of protesters burning draft cards — to vividly make this point.
The documentary follows DeChristopher’s growth as a world figure and the struggle to keep him from becoming a political prisoner, as activists, actors, and attorneys rallied around the environmentalist, who says onscreen that he took spontaneous action because: “It’s really hard for me not to think about climate change… It’s this big weight our generation is bearing on its shoulders.”
Bidder 70 is also a case study in how the Obama clique selectively prosecutes -— and persecutes — dissidents. As Peter Van Buren wrote in a 2012 Mother Jones article: “The Obama administration has been cruelly and unusually punishing in its use of the 1917 Espionage Act to stomp on governmental leakers, truth-tellers, and whistleblowers… charg[ing] more people (six) under the Espionage Act for the alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined… [including] former CIA officer John Kiriakou, charged for allegedly disclosing classified information to journalists about the horrors of waterboarding.”
Although not exactly a whistleblower per se, DeChristopher’s case is “Exhibit A” when it comes to the Obama administration’s selective prosecution.
Bradley Manning is tortured and imprisoned and WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange is hounded for exposing war crimes, but none of the perpetrators of those atrocities are charged. Hacktivist Aaron Swartz is relentlessly pursued by the judicial system to the point where he takes his own life, but corporate criminals remain at large. In a similar way, DeChristopher is put through the legal wringer by Obama’s “Inspector Javerts,” while Bush and his cronies go Scott free after attempting to sell off public land to the highest bidders — just one of their countless crimes against humanity. As Robert Redford puts it: “Nobody from Wall Street is going to jail [for causing the 2008 financial crisis] and you want to send this kid to prison?”
But unlike Jean Valjean in Les Miserables DeChristopher is not alone. Actor and fellow-Utah resident Redford hails DeChristopher’s “peaceful protest” in defense of “lands that contained some of the last great places on Earth” which the energy and mining industries “wants to pollute… for the short term profits of corporations.” Utah author Terry Tempest Williams and actress Daryl Hannah also speak out for the ecologist who is likened onscreen to a modern day Thoreau. Climate-change leaders Bill McKibben and James Hansen also appear, but most heartening of all are the masses of people who rally to DeChristopher’s defense, in particular a group of stalwarts called Peaceful Uprising. There are many scenes of large-scale demonstrations, including an occupation of the Interior Department’s offices. The role art plays in protest is stressed — some rallies use oversized puppets and street theater, which DeChristopher participates in.
As his court case is repeatedly delayed, throughout his trials and tribulations the ever-remarkable DeChristopher keeps the faith. At one point he hits upon the notion of seeking applicants through CraigsList to provide a progressive alternative to the conservative Democratic incumbent in Utah’s 2nd Congressional district. The unusual idea catches fire and the insurgent electoral movement is successful enough to cause a runoff election.
Overall, George and Beth Gage have created a well-crafted, inspiring documentary full of fighting spirit. It also has a stirring score, including songs such as Woody Guthrie’s “All You Fascists Bound to Lose,” performed by Billy Bragg. Gage & Gage Productions have in the past made other politically aware films, such as American Outrage, about Shoshone ranchers struggling for their land rights, and, the more recent, Troubled Waters, about a forgotten town in the Andes where the people are being poisoned by their drinking water.
The Gages’ Bidder 70 exemplifies the cinema of engagement. Your plot-spoiler adverse reviewer won’t ruin the ending for you by revealing what happens to the defiant protagonist of Bidder 70. Suffice it to say that the film’s opening is exquisitely timed to celebrate a key milestone in the ongoing saga of the “unrepentant” Tim DeChristopher.
DeChristopher and his supporters prove that conscience can’t be sold off to the highest bidder.
Bidder 70 opens in New York City on May 17 at the Quad Cinema. It will also be screened at the third annual San Francisco Green Film Festival on June 3. For more information visit www.bidder70film.com.