Film Review: Windfall

Documentary about a quiet upstate New York farm town shaken and divided by some not always dirty and sneaky players in the burgeoning, highly profitable industrial wind-turbine industry is not just the genre at its most revealing but category 5-level e

Documentary editor and debuting feature filmmaker Laura Israel makes a stunning debut with Windfall. Her fascinating subject, an array of plain-folk talking heads, and precious access to a besieged community have a lot to do with it.

In its consideration of environmental threats and the future of renewable wind-energy applications as an intended cure, Windfall focuses on the picturesque former dairy community of Meredith, New York. It’s not quite Grover’s Corners, but close enough.

Residents there, whether transplanted New York City professionals or seasoned locals, are as familiar to us as people next door or down the hall. They unexpectedly confront the invasion of wind-turbine salesmen, working for an Ireland-based company backed by very big business. The company’s objective is to lease privately held land to build the giant windmill monoliths. It ain’t pretty. It’s also no surprise that these companies are backed by mega-corporations and get government tax breaks.

Arguments supporting the turbines are familiar. In sync with the “green” mantra, the windmills produce alternate, sustainable wind power by burning no fossil fuels and not producing air pollution. They also reduce dependency on foreign oil.

But, as Windfall reveals, the turbines, requiring construction usually in large clusters, mean problems. Just one blade can measure 139 feet long and weigh seven tons. Ice can accumulate on the blades and the ice throws are dangerous. There are often dramatic repetitive shadow strobes, vibrations and noises harmful to people. The turbines are vulnerable to lightning. They catch fire, collapse, are harmful to wildlife. They have an adverse impact on the values of homes nearby. And the appalling visual assault of these monoliths on the pastoral (or any) landscape is indisputable.

The doc follows how the wind-turbine infiltration and its threat seriously rattled the tree-hugging, vista-embracing, fresh-air-breathing Meredith residents. If the issue is the fuel, the people of Meredith are the heart of the movie. As in any good intrigue yarn, there are collaborators in the midst. These include former Meredith town supervisor Frank Bachler and major dairy farmer John Hamilton, both anticipating the financial benefits the new source of wind energy might bring to the struggling farm community.

On the activist side is Bob Rosen, not so much a pushover but instrumental in forming the Meredith Alliance that seeks to educate the community about industrial wind energy. Other windblown Meredith residents include Ron and Sue Bailey, who fled Manhattan madness years ago where Ron was a Life magazine editor. They hired a lawyer to bail them out of the wind contract they signed.

Former Brooklyn-based doctor Ken Jaffe, who thought he was leaving urban and professional pressures behind to raise grass-fed beef in Meredith, gets caught up in this windstorm, as does Rachel Polens, another big-city refugee, who runs the town’s framing shop. She spearheads the initial informational meetings about wind energy and resulting activism that challenge the turbine invaders.

Rachel brings environmentalist friend and local bookstore owner Dan Birnbaum into her camp. Initially a believer in this new energy source, he discovers motivations that are more pecuniary than socially driven. Another activist on the anti-windmill front line is energetic newspaper columnist Tara Collins, who helps organize the Meredith Alliance.

Also proof that these Meredith activists are far from country yokels is former publishing exec and encyclopedia editor Keitha Capouya. A Meredith Planning Board chairperson for five years, she digs deep into research on the town’s wind proposal and fires up others to take action. Meredith electrical engineer Marc Schneider and finance expert Steve McCarthy also weigh in on some critical scientific and business aspects of industrial wind-energy development.

The plentiful intrigue has much to do with how the wind-power salesmen infiltrated Meredith, pitching hard and requiring confidentiality agreements with those they’ve signed up. And hold your questions, please.

On the creepier side, sequences shot in another upstate New York town where turbine interests gained traction and built nearly 200 towers reveal dire consequences by way of very scary visuals and testimonies.

The doc doesn’t flatly dismiss the pro-wind mantra of cheap, renewable energy or the long-winded claim of industrial wind farms being a “windfall” to energy-challenged communities. But Windfall unmistakenly, uh, tilts against the industrial windmill movement.

The film becomes especially fascinating in its denouement as it reveals the workings of small-town politics, especially the roles of power-hungry elected and appointed Meredith officials, including a villainous lawyer emanating dumb arrogance, the planning board, town board, and activists seeking more protection against the pro-wind farm interests. As in the best of democracies, it comes down to consensus and here a nail-biting town vote about whether to impose checks on this wind invasion.

Without the benefit of murders, blood, chases or clues, Windfall still manages the deep engagement and suspense akin to solid thrillers. It even has its grotesque monsters in the form of ugly 40-story-tall, blade-flaying gigantic towers defacing picturesque farmlands.

Windfall hits viewers “where they live” by getting up-close and personal with many Meredith citizens where they literally live. So excellent and thrilling a doc will surely attract VOD viewers once word gets out, but might audiences opt for Windfall on the big screen? The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind.