REVIEW: Above All Else

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by Jordan Green

Above All Else screens today at 4 p.m. at Hanesbrands and tomorrow at 11 a.m. at UNCSA Babcock as part of RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem.

Above All Else
Above All Else

Above All Else is a documentary that doesn’t hide its opposition to the XL Keystone Pipeline, which when complete will transport tar-sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Gulf Coast refineries. Since 2011, the pipeline has been the domestic flashpoint in the fight over climate change, although both major political parties largely support the project; the political battle pivots on tension between the Republican Congress’ aggressive promotion of the project and President Obama’s course of due diligence.

The documentary doesn’t waste much time on the ramifications of climate change, from rising sea levels and super storms to drought in California and conflict in Africa. And that’s probably for the best; it’s easy to get bogged down in a medium that isn’t especially suited for technical complexity. Instead, the film zooms in on one east Texas property owner and his neighbors who decide to stand up to the pipeline.

David Daniel is a retired aerialist and circus performer who discovers an easement to build the pipeline across his property. He and his neighbors seem more concerned about the despoliation of their local paradise than the heating of the earth’s atmosphere. This is oil country, but the film makes the case that transporting tar sands is a more risky proposition than Texas crude; that’s probably a debate best settled elsewhere.

Daniel and his neighbors’ stand against the XL Keystone Pipeline brings them into contact with a young cohort of eco warriors whose nonviolent direct-action tactics draws on the traditions of Earth First! and Julia Butterfly Hill (who serves as an executive producer, along with Daryl Hannah).

The idea of constructing a network of tree platforms — a kind of Ewok village — seems like a natural tactic for a property owner who is a retired circus performer and the idealistic, young adventurers who join forces with him. The film alludes to the fact that the two groups — property owners and roving activists — hold different reasons for opposing the pipeline, but part of the film’s appeal is the way it explores their mutual respect and affection. Above All Else is at its best when focusing on the incredible stress that Daniel endures as a result of his stand against a behemoth multinational corporation. Meanwhile, the human line drawn through the treetops gives the film a magnificent visual reference point.

Above All Else doesn’t make any pretense to even-handedness. Viewers won’t hear an articulation of arguments for energy independence or economic development. There’s no invitation to game out unintended consequences such as the possibility that blocking the XL Keystone will result in the tar sands oil going instead to the Pacific coast and Asian markets, or the geopolitical question of whether putting the brakes on domestic production will only strengthen the Russian petro-state. And that’s fine: The best stories are about people, after all.

The emotional toll imposed from a small group’s decision to stand against the pipeline, and the incredible corporate and political power that it represents, raises the question of whether this style of activism is quixotic. At the conclusion of Above All Else, most viewers will likely be persuaded that, to paraphrase Margaret Mead, a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world — or at least bend the line ever so slightly.

Dir. John Fiege, USA, 95 min., 2014