SXSW Interview: John Fiege (Director) & Daryl Hannah (Executive Producer) – ‘Above All Else’

One man will risk it all to stop the tar sands of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from crossing his land. Shot in the forests, pastures, and living rooms of rural East Texas, ‘Above All Else‘ follows David Daniel as he rallies neighbors and environmental activists to join him in a final act of brinkmanship: a tree-top blockade of the controversial pipeline. What begins as a stand against corporate bullying becomes a rallying cry for climate protesters nationwide.

As in his previous film, ‘Mississippi Chicken‘, director John Fiege puts a human face on a complex case of social injustice, capturing the South in all its drama and contradiction

Following the WORLD PREMIERE of ‘Above All Else‘ at the 2014 SXSW Film Interactive & Music Conference, we interviewed the film’s Director John Fiege, as well as its Executive Producer Daryl Hannah.  ‘Above All Else‘ screens as part of the SXSW Documentary Spotlight program and is also a SXSW Eco Recommendation.  Following its premiere on March 10, ‘Above All Else‘ continues to screen on Tuesday, March 11 and Saturday, March 15, 2014 in Austin, Texas.

Find More Information & Tickets to ‘Above All Else’ at SXSW Film – HERE

John, when did you start thinking about making a documentary on the subject of Keystone XL, or the subject of Tar Sands Crude in general?
John Fiege: Coming to the story was a long process which started with me getting Cancer 4.5 years ago and asking the question, why is our economy and culture fascinated with fossil fuels and the chemicals produced from them? When  started developing this film the BP oil spill happened.  I started to shoot down in Louisiana when my Cancer came back and then could not shoot for a long time.  At the end of this 2 year battle I started hearing about the Keystone XL pipeline and the people who were fighting very hard against a project not even proved yet, with the hope of preventing another disaster like BP.  To me, it looked like a real sea change in the environmental movement and the conversation about climate change in the US regarding the role all types of Americans have in it, from farmers and ranchers in the middle of the country to more traditional urban environmentalists. It was an exciting time as this issue really galvanized the movement and took it in a different direction that was necessary in the climate change battle.

Photo courtesy of Immigrant Workers Films.

David Daniel. Photo courtesy of Immigrant Workers Films.

Daryl, how did you come to be involved with ‘Above All Else’?
Daryl Hannah: I had been involved in supporting some of the communities and people from the northern route, specifically the Native American communities. I did a ride along the route with four of the chiefs, as well as cowboys, who came together to try to protect their waters and lands.  I had already been arrested before I even heard about ‘Above All Else‘ even though David Daniel was arrested at the same time.  Then a friend of mine had told me about John’s film.  At that point I was already planning to go down there to bring some awareness to the fact the Southern leg had been fast tracked since it was not being reported. Everyone had been reporting on the fact that the Keystone decision had been delayed.  I thought it was ridiculous.  When I heard about this film it seemed like the perfect alignment in terms of lending support and awareness.  When I was down there John introduced me to all these wonderful people.

How were you first introduced to (Documentary subject) David Daniel?
JF:  Once I had decided that Keystone XL was a noteworthy issue and since it was coming through Texas, where I live, I wanted to find people who lived along the pipeline route and were fighting it.  We started combing the internet for folks and found DavidDaniel and Julia Trigg Crawford, who had already been getting exposure in the media.  I called them up and met them 2 years ago.

For people who may not be aware of Tar Sands Crude, can you give us an idea as to how exactly it affects the environment?
JF: Tars Sands is a thick, viscous substance that is considered one of the dirtiest unconventional sources of oil on Earth.  To get to it, first they clear cut the Boreal Forest until it is absolutely decimated.  Then it is mined.  You do not just stick a pipe in the ground like traditional oil where it pops up.  It is much harder process, which is the reason it has not been developed until now.  The price of oil has made it economically feasible to spend all this extra money, energy, water and natural gas to create this.  The State Department, which has been heavily criticized for being pro oil, just released a report saying the development of tar sands produces 17% more greenhouse gasses than conventional oil.  Even folks who are objective or have an industry slant recognize this oil is more polluting in terms of its carbon footprint and its affect on greenhouse gas emissions.  Also, the pipeline is massive.  It runs from Alberta, Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast…

DH:  They have to heat it; they put it under enormous amounts of pressure; it is much more corrosive; they do not know how to clean it up; they do not have to put money into the clean up funds as it is not regulated under crude oil laws, so if there is a spill the taxpayers have to pay for the cleanup.  Basically, we have exhausted the easy to access fossil fuels on the planet.  This is why we are resorting to extreme forms of extraction like deep water drilling, fracking, mountain top removal, tar sands and SAGD.  All of these practices destroy eco systems near and far.  We know how to produce energy in a way that does not damage our health or the health of our life support systems, so it is time to make the shift.  All while industries are shifting towards these extreme practices and maintain there position as the wealthiest in the history of mankind.

JF:  The other element to this story that is interesting is that much of the conventional crude that exists is held by states like Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.  North American multi-national companies cannot easily go in and grab the oil because these are powerful, sometimes tyrannical, states who are not going to let Western companies push them around.

DH:  The fact is, we have the skills, technology and means to produce energy in other ways yet we do not have the political will to carry them out.

Susan Scott & Eleanor Fairchild.  Photo courtesy of Immigrant Workers Films.

Susan Scott & Eleanor Fairchild. Photo courtesy of Immigrant Workers Films.

Are you referring to solar and wind energy?
DH: A whole host of ways to make regenerative cleaner energy.

What do you see as the biggest misconception proponents of this practice release to the public?
DH:  People think this oil is for America.  It is not conventional oil, so that is one thing.  Second, it is coming to America in order to make our gas cheaper and give us access to abundant supplies of friendlier oil…

JF: …and reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

DH:  None of those things are true.  Plus, it will supply 30K more jobs.

Whenever I hear arguments for the practice they are always rooted in either the jobs created or the fact that someone like the Chinese will come in and do it anyway…
DH:  It is going to China anyway.

JF:  Imagine if we totally retrofitted our economy to run on renewable energy, how many jobs that would create…

DH: …and permanent jobs.

JF:  It is a massive project to create solar power, wind power and other types of low impact, renewable energy.

Have you received any animosity from corporate interests?
JF: Not yet.  They did not talk to me while I was making the film.  I tried to get interviews.  I talked to a few of the workers, who were nice guys just doing their jobs, but that was the extent of my interaction with them.

Wall Blockade.  Photo courtesy of Immigrant Workers Films.

Wall Blockade. Photo courtesy of Immigrant Workers Films.

As a documentary filmmaker, was there any aspect of this production you had anticipated as being difficult but turned out to not be so?
JF:  The film was very hard to make; It was grueling.  The most pleasant surprise was how cohesive the narrative became.  As a filmmaker you are constantly concerned about structure, storytelling and narrative flow but it all became so built into this story it wrote itself for me.  Early on, I was trying to think how to relate everything together.  Once I met David and realised how serious he was it became evident this was not just idle musing.  He was serious and had the skills and background to do it.

DH:  You did have a lot of challenges because as David Daniel got shut down there were certain things you could not use that were major parts of the story.

Finally, aside from the reasons they are done, what is the atmosphere of a Tree-Top Blockade like?
JF: It is magical.  I spent a lot of time in that forest, all day and everyday.  I have always liked hiking and camping, but there is something very immersive about this.  It became a home.  The people who decided to blockade the pipeline were so attached to this land, place, streams, trees, bugs and birds.  As a filmmaker I felt that so with the film I am trying to show this small section of forest becoming a more significant metaphor for the global fight against climate change.

– Interview Conducted, Edited & Transcribed On-Site @ SXSW by Steve Rickinson
Facebook: /aboveallelsefilm
Twitter: @AboveFilm



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