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Documentary fuels greening of Sundance

Biofuels enthusiast and author Josh Tickell takes his story to the big screen in one of a growing number of activist environmental films at the festival.

Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers wrote and edited CNET News stories from 2005 to 2020 and is now a contributor to CNET.
Michelle Meyers
3 min read

This entry was updated on January 28 to reflect the film's award status.

PARK CITY, Utah--On one end of the documentary spectrum, you have films that are akin to extended works of journalism. They are in-depth, objective examinations of issues, personalities or phenomena that often leave you thinking that truth really is stranger than fiction.

fuel pump
A still from the film, Fields of Fuel, which is screening at Sundance. Fields of Fuel via Sundance

On the other end are advocacy films, which seem increasingly popular here at the Sundance Film Festival, particularly when it comes to politically charged issues such as the war in Iraq and the environment.

The latter type of documentary can be just as informative as the former, if done right. Take Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, a 2006 festival film, which many people credit with having woken up the general public to the potentially grave consequences of global warming.

Another such example at this year's festival is Fields of Fuel, which received a long standing ovation at its first public screening here Monday. (Update: It turned out that Fields of Fuel won the festival's audience award for documentaries). In the film, director Josh Tickell tells the story of his life as an activist pushing for the use of biodiesel and other alternative fuels in an effort to reduce our dependency on foreign oil and protect the environment.

I tend to be wary of advocacy docs for fear they'll be feature-length brainwashers. But Tickell's film is fair, honest, informative and--a biggie for me--nicely edited. And I suppose it was convincing, too--it got me thinking about buying a car with a diesel engine and I went online to find the nearest biodiesel fuel pumps.

Josh Tickell has traveled the country trying to persuade consumers to switch to biofuels or other alternatives to reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil. Fields of Fuel via Sundance

Tickell's efforts have already been well documented. (Click here for my colleague's story on his efforts.) He's written two books on biodiesel, done countless interviews and is perhaps best known for traveling the country in his biodiesel-powered "Veggie Van" to promote alternative fuel. But the documentary might just appeal to consumers in a different way.

I was a little turned off, especially at first, by the fact that he's telling his own story in scripted pseudo-interviews. I'd prefer someone else doing the interview, exposing us a little more to Tickell the person, as opposed to Tickell the activist. Viewers get a little of that, however, when he reflects upon his frustration at one point in the film when it seemed all his efforts had made no difference. "If anything, the U.S. slipped backwards," he says, reflecting on the early Bush years.

The audience was totally charged after the film as Tickell took the podium for a quick Q&A. He also brought up a huge cast and crew who he said had put "blood, sweat and tears," into the film.

Tickell at podium
Director Josh Tickell addresses the audience before the first public screening Monday of his Fields of Fuel at Sundance. Michelle Meyers/CNET News.com

Among the cast members were Jonathan Wolfson and Harrison Dillon, founders of a South San Francisco company called Solazyme, which makes biofuel out of algae. Solazyme demonstrated a car powered by its fuel at the festival and also announced a partnership with Chevron.

No word as of yet about Fields of Fuel getting picked up for distribution. Last year a similarly interesting activist documentary on global warming call Everything's Cool also got a warm Sundance reception, but never made it nationally to the big screen. (Thanks to a News.com reader who pointed out that the film had a small theater run in New York and Los Angeles.)

Among the other feature-length films at this year's festival with green themes are Flow: For the Love of Water, about why water is a dwindling resource; and Up the Yangtze, a film that quickly got bought for distribution about the building of the Three Gorges Dam and its effects on the lives of the locals and the environment.

There are also many environmental shorts screening, including Mr. W, by a Germany based filmmaking team called The Vikings. Mr. W, which preceded Fields of Fuel, is much better on the big screen but is totally worth a couple of YouTube minutes.