TransCanada’s PR team offers dozens of videos featuring happy “straight talk” — in both English and French — about its Keystone XL pipeline.
In them you’ll meet the smiling TransCanada environmental specialist who says she grew up in Nebraska, and has nothing but “great respect for the people who live here.” They’ll introduce you to a multicultural group of hardworking men in hardhats who will tell you about how much pride they take in building the pipeline. And then there’s the weatherbeaten farmer who grins slyly as he recalls the hard bargain he drove before agreeing to sell the company a right-of-way across his land.
In one video, a narrator intones, “Next to your family, we know there’s nothing closer to your heart than your land. We’re TransCanada, and we understand how you feel about your land. We’ve worked with thousands of landowners in the US and Canada.”
But a new film that premiered at the South by Southwest film festival paints a portrait of a company that uses eminent domain — and the threat of exorbitant litigation costs – to bully landowners into giving way to the Keystone pipeline.
Above All Else, a documentary directed by John Fiege, follows the story of David Daniel, a man who ran away to join the circus in his youth and then, after a career working as a high-wire artist, settled down with his family on a quiet plot of land in Texas.
Daniel became an “accidental activist” when TransCanada chose his property to become part of the route of the southern leg of the Keystone pipeline.
“Like most people, I was just trying to plow through life,” he says. Then one day, he woke up to find a series of surveyor’s stakes crossing his land. A month later, he received a letter from TransCanada asking permission to conduct the survey. He hadn’t given much thought to oil pipelines or the controversy over Keystone, he says, “until it literally came to my doorstop.”
At first, David Daniel just wanted some answers about what would be flowing across his property. He says that when he told TransCanada’s attorney that he had some questions, he brusquely replied, “All I need to know about you is which pile to put you in: the cooperative pile or the uncooperative f—ing pile.”
Daniel reached out to his neighbors, many of whom he learned had been similarly pressured by TransCanada. In this clip, Susan Scott explains how she ended up giving TransCanada permission to run the pipeline across her property.
A frustrated David Daniel decides he isn’t going to take it sitting down. Rather, he’ll confront TransCanada from high above. He’s joined by a group of young people who risk their bodies fighting the construction of the pipeline. Daniel uses his experience rigging circus acts to build a little community in the trees — and right in the path of the bulldozers. It’s a bit like Occupy the Canopy.
“They love having fights in courtrooms,” says one of the activists. “They don’t want to have a fight in rural East Texas, in 100-degree weather, in the woods. That’s our turf, and that’s where we’re having this fight.”
The film builds toward a final showdown between this ragtag group of activists in the woods and the Canadian oil giant.
Daniel says, “The whole fight from day one has been about protecting my family.” He had seen for himself the dangers inherent in transporting tar sands crude through a high pressure pipeline, as this clip shows.
Before taking to the trees, Daniel had pinned his hopes on the Obama administration denying approval for the project. In this clip, Daniel, along with some of his neighbors from rural East Texas, are arrested protesting Keystone XL in front of the White House.
Above All Else is a film about a guy with a quirky skill set trying to protect his family’s homestead. But it’s also about how a Canadian company uses its political and legal muscle to lay a pipeline through Americans’ properties so it can ship the dirtiest crude to the Texas Gulf Coast, where much of it will be exported to Asian markets.
“When you go up against bullies and try to challenge them honestly, what do they do?” asks Daniel at a low point in his struggle. “They just punch you, and that’s what they’ve done.”
Watch the trailer:
Above All Else is currently on the festival circuit. We’ll update this post when it hits theaters.