By Jonathan Mallon
For a CEC assignment for Environmental Writing, I saw a documentary about energy that was simply called Fuel. Presented and directed by Josh Tickell, it is a personal and passionate documentary about renewable, low-emitting fuels, from biodiesel to other alternative energies, as well as what goes in to making oil. Aside from a preachy end, that element of personal investment from Tickell really helped enliven the documentary.
Tickell said in the film that his personal involvement with the environment came from his experience playing outdoors when he lived in Australia. At a certain point, he explained that his mother moved the family to Louisiana, where he was exposed to pollution in both the air and water from the oil refineries in the state. He would eventually create a vehicle that ran on biodiesel fuel, or refined used cooking oil, and toured with it throughout the U.S in the 90s. The documentary shows a clip of him (along with a very young Matt Lauer) on “The Today Show” in the mid to late 90s during his tour.
His film’s message didn’t just pertain to his experiences, which were filled with small wins and big defeats, but also educates how gas and other oil-based products were made, as well as the economics and farming impact of promoting ethanol from corn and alternative fuels being developed. Much of the information he presented I heard about elsewhere, but he still instilled a wonder with the information, especially when he discussed some of the alternative fuels being developed, such as a type of oily algae that could be cultivated and made into gasoline. His own story adds a personal stake, while not making any of the information or story heavy-handed or melodramatic.
What does get melodramatic, however, is the very end. Tickell uses not only a clichéd means to bring his message home, which is to tell the audience that they have the power to change, but comes off as preachy. Complete with dramatic scenery of a crowded New York City where he holds cardboard signs encouraging people to take action, his education on fuel and its alternatives turns into a plea to people for change that fits, yet unnecessarily and explicitly pulls on the emotions of the educated audience.
The film came out in 2008, and while the political decisions on fuel and the environment at the time are still being felt six years later, the political information is dated at this point.
Still, the film is just as contemporary in its message as it was back in ’08. Tickell’s focus on his experiences and the information he presents on energy and fuel sheds light on what is still a major topic. Both his experience and information make the film both an educational documentary and a fascinating story about one man’s challenge to make a difference in fuel production.
While the end feels preachy, its only lasts for a very short while, thus hampering the film from a critical standpoint, but not by much. Tickell’s passion for alternative fuels and energy easily comes out of the film, and is passed off to the audience in a way that may get people talking about other options.