February 16, 2009

"FUEL" - an interview with Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell

In January 2008, Josh Tickell screened his new documentary “Fields of Fuel” at the Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews (see trailer here). It won the Audience Award for Best Documentary. After a full year of more development, it has recently been released to a few theaters in the L.A.

I was invited to attend a pre-premiere green carpet party at one of only two gas stations in Los Angeles that sell both E85 and biodiesel fuels. It was cold (for L.A. in the high 40’s) and threatened rain but it still drew a number of celebrities – Peter Fonda, James Cromwell, Mariel Hemmingway, Stephen Collins, and others – who wanted to support the movie’s successful release.

I caught up with Josh and his fiancée, Rebecca Harrell, on the green carpet and conducted this interview.

Scott: I know that leading up to this, you have had trailers at various conferences. Two years ago I saw it at a Farm to Fuels conference in St. Petersburg Florida. What’s happened since?

Josh: It was quite a journey from Sundance a year ago to here. We cut the movie and added a whole new section about sustainability and the solutions that people were asking for. So the movie grew up a little bit in the year – and we got it ready to come out to the movie theaters as well.
Hello Rebecca, what is your role?

Rebecca: I am Rebecca Harrell and I am a producer of the film as well as Josh’s fiancée… and the Marketing Director during this evolving process for this “labor of love.” We have had to address all the controversy that has been erupting around biofuels. So we couldn’t release the movie without proving that. I think watching the movie will spark your interest and make you more aware of how you can help move biofuels forward.
Why did you make the film?

Josh: We started shooting the film in 1997 when I started driving the “Veggie Van” around the country. We didn’t originally go out with the objective of making a movie so much as the objective to see if these solutions are viable. For two years we just drove it around, making my own fuel, looking for solutions.

What started out as a two month journey turned into an eleven year journey to not just find solutions but to bring them to the public in a way that is accessible so people can understand. What better way than in the form of a movie!
Can you give us some highlights of the film?

Josh: One of the best parts of the film is what we call “the sustainable barrel.” It’s an animated barrel of solutions that replace an oil barrel. People love that part and all the things that people can do themselves that are shown in the movie. It is not often that you can see a movie and then you can do the things in the movie as soon as you’re done.

Rebecca: It is certainly an environmental documentary but it doesn’t make you want to jump off a bridge at the end. It leaves you inspired and uplifted and full of things you can do right now and that’s not usually the way green activists look at this.

Josh: This isn’t a movie that your vegetarian girlfriend is going to drag you to and you end up feeling depressed. She might drag you to it but it’s actually fun.
I think you’d agree that stakeholder engagement is going to be key to the environmental community to accept the deployment of any new technologies. Sustainability being a huge issue, are you prepared to go and help educate America that there can be alternatives?

Josh: Absolutely, the film is about outreach, it is about communities, its about individuals banding together to understand the solutions and act on them. We’ve got a “Big Green Energy Bus”, we’ve got this big inflatable screen – this is really about a community coming together and getting out on the road and activating America. Not around problems but around solutions, especially those that can help us get out of this economic crisis. That’s what green energy and green collar jobs really is.
Do you see an advantage to decentralization of our energy paradigm that seems locked into going further and further to tap fewer and more remote reserves that are dirtier and dirtier to distill?

Josh: Yes, I think the core message of the sustainability movement is that it has got to be local, it’s got to be recyclable. The core of sustainability is non-centralized energy sources – energy you and I can help make – whether it is in my apartment, my house, or my ranch.

Rebecca: It’s also about using our waste streams as fuels.
You are to be congratulated on the work you have done so far. It will be interesting to see where you take it after the flurry of interest in the film itself.

Rebecca: It isn’t just a movie. We are going to take the educational portion of the film and turn it into a 45 minute entertaining, rock and roll, educational film that we distribute for free to every school in America. We will go along with our Big Green Energy Bus and educate people how to be green and sustainable.
You have a wonderful website at ( www.thefuelfilm.com > that’s beautiful, number one, but also very functional.

Josh: Yeah, that’s Rebecca’s creation.
Is that going to be a keystone as part of this movement?

Rebecca: What you see there is just the tip of the iceberg for our website. We are going to use it as a way for people to broadcast their own green message. We developed it so that people will be the eventual owners of that site and we will be facilitating it.

Josh: Everything – the movie, the bus, the website – is for the people and generated by the people as well. Every ticket that is sold for this movie is a vote for green energy, it’s a vote for change. People around the world see those ticket numbers. People ask, “What can we do?” – well right away people can get to the theater and get others to the theater. We will be building a whole network for people to act on as the movie rolls out across the country.
Well we vote with our dollars in this country. And the problem is that, at our gas stations, you can get whatever fuel you want - as long as its petroleum based. We are desperate for fuel alternatives. This fuel station, called Conserv Fuel, is one of the only one’s selling alternatives in all of Los Angeles.

Rebecca: You’re right and they almost stopped selling biodiesel a few weeks ago. When we got that email we were pretty shocked and depressed and then we realized it doesn’t have to be this way. So we started writing and we got others to write also. Within literally five days we got a notice from the gas station that they changed their minds and were going to sell biodiesel. We wanted to celebrate with them and that’s one of the reasons we are here today – I don’t think anyone has ever had a film opening at a gas station before.
Well I hope you can roll this out to other bloggers and the bioenergy conferences that are going on around the country on this very subject. There is a Waste to Fuels conference in San Diego in mid-May – maybe we can show your movie there as well, with your blessing.

Rebecca: Great! We’ll definitely be in contact to set that up.

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February 12, 2009

"Fuel" is a Galvanizing Vehicle

"Fuel" is a film for our time - and also winner of the 2008 Sundance Audience Award for Best Documentary (see trailer here). It may help America wake up to the inexorable consequences of its fossil fuel addiction the way that "An Inconvenient Truth" did to global warming.

"Fuel" is the end product of an eleven year odyssey by Director Josh Tickell in his sunflower festooned, diesel Winnebago called Veggie Van. The traveling show that accompanies the movie release promises to capture attention and stimulate grassroots demand to replace fossil thinking, process, and fuels with renewable energy. "Fuel" could become the communications vehicle that educates the public at large of the liabilities associated with fossil fuels and the benefits of home grown alternatives.

The current film is 111 minutes long and full of geology, biology, physics, politics, and history - most of it personal. It is first and foremost the perspective of a 34 year who grew up not knowing any better. He didn't know that he couldn't use the balance of his college student loans to buy a diesel vehicle. He didn't know whether there would be a low-budget, sustainable way to convert restaurant grease and vegetables into fuel to power his transport. He couldn't have imagined that he would spend the next eleven years RVing America. To what end? To what purpose? Quite frankly, when you're 22, who cares.

All he knew was that he wanted to find out if there was a clean alternative to the paradigm that has resulted in the environmental and health disaster of the bayous of his family's native Louisiana. This region, once home to Cajun culture and bayou ecology, is now dominated by the brown fields of the petro-industry with air, land, and water quality contamination that more than likely will never return to normal. In a stark section of the film about hurricane Katrina, Josh shows an on-land oil spill the size of the Exxon Valdez that was left in the hurricane's wake - yet never reported in the mainstream media. Why not? Clearly, the petro industry is a "sacred cow" in the state.

I doubt if Forest Gump traveled as far as Josh did crisscrossing America, but both engendered the same kind of popular fascination. It's a great story that captures the imagination of all generations. Talk about "the audacity of hope" - Josh's trek is it. A personal journey that is an affront to Luddite thinking and entrenched interests.

While the duplicity of the oil industry is on display, this isn't a rant against their lack of integrity and responsibility. It is a call to action for people to seek alternatives and support them with their purchases. To hold their leaders to a higher standard. To demand research, development, and deployment of an infrastructure that will support a paradigm shift to renewable fuels and power.

It is also a great example of the power of the individual to become a "one man army." By using event and modern media, the tools are at hand for creative, insightful individuals to leverage profound effect with relatively little means.

It is no surprise that such an individual collected such a following among celebrity activists who are recorded in the film - Woody Harrelson, Julia Roberts, Sheryl Crow, Larry "JR" Hagman, Vinod Khosla, Willie Nelson, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Larry David, Sir Richard Branson, and others. Are they experts? Most aren't, but they want to use their celebrity to advance causes they believe receive too little attention. And our energy options are perhaps the most important discussion in the country.

In one of the more educational parts of the movie, an animated treatment spells out the many ways we can substitute sustainable fuel alternatives for oil. Josh is clearly a biodiesel advocate, but he doesn't stop there. An oil barrel is carved into sections that are replaced by other alternatives - biomass, solar, wind, tidal, energy efficiency, and others.

Speaking of education, the "Veggie Van" that educated America as it toured the highways and byways now has a big brother - the BIG GREEN ENERGY BUS. According the the www.thefuelfilm.com website:

The Big Green Energy Bus is a mobile education laboratory featuring the latest interactive technology in sustainable energy including solar, conservation, energy efficiency, water recycling, thermal heat and green appliances.

FUEL’s Big Green Bus Project gives students hands on experience with green energy - providing them with fundamental understanding of how they can use green energy in their homes, in schools and in vehicles.

Upon entering the bus, students are greeted with a member of our certified “Green Team.” The Green Team takes students through each “Learning Station” explaining the function of the systems in the bus. Students have the opportunity to switch on and off components of the solar display and see how much energy is saved by using energy efficient lightbulbs, how to turn sewage into fuel, how solar panels work, how to use the internet to access green energy information, how to make and use biodiesel, how to compost, how to build a simple grey water recycling system, and how to turn America’s unhealthy school buses into clean green buses like this one!

Plans are in the works to pare the original movie to 45 minutes and distribute it for free through schools whose students can view the shorter film during class time or assemblies.

I recommend that readers watch for this film as it is slowly introduced at theaters around the country. You will witness a consequential film with character, credibility, and relevance too rarely seen in American cinema.

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