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SXSW Review: Documentary 'Above All Else' Obscured By Narrow Focus

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by Kevin Jagernauth
March 16, 2014 1:31 PM
3 Comments
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Above All Else

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm firmly against the Keystone XL pipeline that will start in Canada and cut through the United States to the Gulf Coast. If it goes through, I think it's an environmental disaster waiting to happen, with an economic boost that would temporarily benefit the average worker, in what would ultimately be a financial gain for a few at the top. And that's not to mention the detrimental impact it will have on individuals, communities and more, just through construction alone. But even with that stance, a decision on this controversial proposition will only benefit from considered debates that give both sides a chance to equally air their positions without hyperbole. Certainly, in a sharply partisan political sphere in the United States, that's not easy, which makes it all the more frustrating that John Fiege couldn't raise the bar of discourse with "Above All Else." 

There's no doubt that the documentary is coming from a very particular point of view, tracking Texas resident David Daniel as he fights to prevent TransCanada, the company behind Keystone XL, from declaring "eminent domain" on his gorgeous piece of forested land and cutting through it to lay down pipes that will pump through tar, sands, oil and lots and lots and lots of chemicals with it. Neighbors are rounded up, "professional" activists join the cause and train volunteers on how to chain themselves to Mack trucks and resist arrest, and a spirited group of young people construct treehouses way up in the air on David's property to stop any paths being cleared by TransCanada as David consults with lawyers and tries to save his home. There's even a celebrity producer on the project, with Daryl Hannah throwing her name into the credits. But, lacking context and viewpoints from all sides, "Above All Else" quickly slides in a repetitive bore.

The concerns and fears from everyone involved are undoubtedly legitimate and even moving at times, but Fiege's singular focus on the battle for David's property obscures a look at both the narrative and issue from a larger perspective. Through the film, there are implications that local officials are rolling over to do the bidding of TransCanada, but this is never followed up on. In fact, no local officials are interviewed about David and his neighbors' fight, and what legally is expected from them in this situation. And with TransCanada presented as the villain who is breaking or bending the law to rip their pipe from the Gulf northward as they wait for President Barack Obama to approve (or not) a border-crossing into Canada, there is surprisingly little look at the politics in play. Where does the state senator or governor stand on the issues? Or, even more locally, the mayor or councillors? Again, this is crucial background that goes unacknowledged in the documentary.

Even the film's subject, David Daniel, remains mostly a mystery. While we're given a brief background of his stuntman past, a big issue hanging around like a white elephant in the room is the concurrent collapse of his marriage while he fights TransCanada. Granted, David's wife may not have wanted to share this personal problem on camera, and certainly it's understandable if they wanted to keep their very young daughter out of the spotlight (she appears briefly), but as David breaks down later in the picture, we're still left somewhat outside the moment, as it's not clear just what he has lost or is grieving for. However, even with the structural failings of "Above All Else," it's not without moments that are intriguing and gripping.

Perhaps most fascinating is watching the training and instruction given by seasoned activists to new recruits, where it becomes clear that both sides of Keystone XL issue are highly mobilized. Watching these (mostly) young people rally those who wouldn't otherwise identify themselves as protesters, or even "political," is impressive stuff. So too is witnessing the building of the treehouse village (of sorts), rising more than 60 feet off the ground. And perhaps most touching is watching a small handful of retired and elderly women (one of whose late husband worked for big oil), moving into action after learning what is going to happen in their own backyard.

But those moments are fleeting in a movie that has a lot to say about TransCanada, running its (amusingly earnest and ridiculously positive) promo material, but never opting to try and engage them directly. And that's the ongoing problem with "Above All Else." It has a lot of strong words to say about Keystone, but tells them to the converted, rather than attempting to reach across and hear what the enemy might have to say, or how they'll respond. [C-] 

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3 Comments

  • Don | March 16, 2014 4:07 PMReply

    I agree with Jessica's comment. I also was in the audience at SXSW. This film showed what was happening on the ground as it unfolded in a powerful way. TransCanada and their actions speak loud and clear enough in this film-we don't need anymore official political double speak from anyone. This is the story of a few truly brave americans. Powerful storytelling and impressive filmmaking- that's what we need more of.

  • tully | March 16, 2014 4:06 PMReply

    What JESSICA said.

  • Jessica | March 16, 2014 3:35 PMReply

    If I wanted to watch a film featuring interviews from the "enemy", the townspeople, the lawyers, the kids, the trees, it would become like every other redundantly boring talking head interview doc on TV. All sides have a say in the matter, but is it really provide more depth or simply blurring the issue even more? Observational/verite films may lack a comprehensive outlook on the "big picture", but the emotional arc we see in David through consistently throughout the film is enough for me to say that this is one of the most personal and intimate docs I've seen at SXSW this year.

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