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Above All Else Review [Hot Docs 2014]

The Keystone XL pipeline debate literally hits home in Above All Else, a compelling story about one's struggle to live simply.


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The Keystone XL pipeline plan is a political hot potato that has pre-occupied the minds of many politicians, business people, environmentalists and ordinary citizens. President Barack Obama has again and again pushed back on making a decision, while Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been pushing for him to make the call one way or the other. A recent court ruling in Nebraska has thrown the plan into limbo once more, but what’s lost in the politics and the economics is what happens to the “little people” whose land the pipeline will go through? Do they not have a say? Or are they being railroaded by the process?

In Above All Else, the Keystone debate literally hits home, and that home belongs to David Daniel. A former high-wire acrobat, David settled on a little piece of heaven in East Texas, a small cozy cabin in the middle of the woods with a creek nearby for him, his wife and his daughter. A few years ago, some folks from TransCanada showed up saying that they needed his permission to survey the land for a fully-approved pipeline plan, except the plan wasn’t fully approved and TransCanada was using imminent domain to seize a portion of the land belonging to David and his neighbours. And that’s where the story really begins…

Having said that, it’s easy to think that Above All Else is a typical environmental documentary where corporations are evil and no one’s thinking of the children, or the animals, or anyone or anything else that could be ill-affected by the drilling of oil. The benchmark of the environmental doc may be Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth, which, despite its appeal, is non-stop doom and gloom that paints a picture of hopelessness even as it tries to get its viewers psyched up to solve the problem. Above All Else could have gone the same way. It’s about a bunch of simple activists trying to stand in the way of a project worth billions and billions of dollars, so they can’t possibly win, right?

Despite the stakes, and despite the odds, the movie and the activists do know how to have a good time. When David unwittingly becomes the rallying point for protest against the pipeline, a protest is organized to protect the trees by establishing tree houses in the path of the construction. Those tree houses, naturally, are named Endor and Fangorn, referencing the home of the Ewoks from Return of the Jedi and the home of the Ents from Lord of the Rings. When not co-opting pop culture, the protestors train for when they come face-to-face with TransCanada security, including the use of passive resistance. “You’re in for it now, hippie!” yells one of the trainers getting a little too much into character during a rehearsal.

Of course, the machines eventually come to David’s property and there’s a sense of foreboding. When not getting served by lawyers who are accusing David and the protestors of harassing TransCanada’s crew, a giant machine begins clearing trees, snapping them down and tossing them aside like they’re not even there. The film then segues from a delightful romp about fighting the power, to a nail-biter of a showdown between man and machine. True to the heroes of fantasy that they’ve named their forts after, the activists are involved in an epic battle that they’re doomed to be on the losing side of. The only question is, are they able to secure the moral victory? To the viewer, I will leave that determination.

Smartly, director John Fiege makes this a movie about one man who’s the unintended hero. David is just a guy that wants answers, and wants to enjoy his land and have something he can share with his family in peace and tranquility. His battle flies in the face of conventional wisdom of a man not just being a master of his destiny, but a master of his castle and the land it sits upon. In this regard, Above All Else should be a wake up call. Imminent domain used to be the prerogative of the state for the greater good of the people, now it’s a tool for corporations who want to make a few dollars more.

Having said that, the “drill baby, drill” crowd are unlikely to find anything appealing about the movie, but they really should, because this is the backyard of one of the reddest of the red states. These aren’t your typical environmental protestors, or “eco-terrorists” to use the preferred alternative label that TransCanada wants you to use. The late husband of Eleanor, one of David’s neighbours, was a VP at an oil company, and she faces down a TransCanada security guard who doesn’t like the way that Eleanor’s looking at the mess the company’s made on her land. That Texas resolve and grit is analogous with the Lone Star State, but we don’t typically think of Texas as a hotbed for environmental activism. Maybe that should change. Maybe that is changing. But maybe, if the politics work out, other won’t have to know David’s struggle. That would be the real victory.


The Keystone XL pipeline debate literally hits home in Above All Else, a compelling story about one's struggle to live simply.

Above All Else Review