By Barbara Kessler

josh-algal-fuel.jpgIf timing is everything, then premiering a film that champions biofuels at a time when the news media’s aflame with stories about the problems with biofuels must be a tad discouraging.

But Josh Tickell, creator of Fields of Fuel, does not seem discouraged. Determined, but not discouraged. Tickell, who has been been on a decade-long personal journey to find oil alternatives, still intends to seize his teaching moment. He has broadened the scope of his cinematic work to bring it up to date and refers to the film as a “work-in-progress” because there will be some additions before its Summer 2008 general release.

Whatever personal pangs Tickell must be suffering upon seeing biofuels get a thumbs down on the cover of Time (The Clean Energy Myth, April 7) , are likely to be assuaged by the reception his adventuresome narrative will surely receive. It won the audience award for best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival and a standing ovation at its screening at the AFI Dallas International Film Festival this past weekend, where audience members praised it for its upbeat message and impressive depth.

The film, 10 years in the making, is stunningly wide ranging. It’s fast-paced and packed with information, covering everything from how fossil fuels were created millions of years ago to Vice President Cheney’s secret meetings with oil CEOs; to the devastating pollution created by the oil industry in Tickell’s native Louisiana, to the little-known fact that Rudolph Diesel’s first patented diesel engine ran not on petrol, but peanut oil – in 1900.

Best of all, it’s entertaining.

Whizzing along with Josh, initially in his circa 1997 Veggie Van, we meet to a diverse chorus of experts and lay persons. There’s a city official in Las Vegas, where they run school buses on biodiesel and a farmer in Australia who powers his entire operation on canola oil. Woody Harrelson delivers a pep talk, telling us that “individuals can affect their perimeter of friends” to become logo.pngmore green. Neil Young and Willie Nelson giggle while fueling Willie’s tour bus with biodiesel. Meanwhile, truckers in Carl’s Corner in Texas report that their rigs run better and cleaner on biodiesel and that the United States’ dependency on foreign oil is, in the words of one, a “flat ass shame.”

Tickell does an amazing job of pulling together multiple, interwoven story lines that add up to an assault on petroleum, the politics of doing nothing and a trumpet call for new technologies. Could the barrage of info leave the uninitiated confused? It’s possible. The film packs it in. But by including his own head-scratching moments and personal discoveries, Tickell puts the brakes on the potential for condescension or abstractions.

The film’s layered narrative (Josh’s personal voyage plus stuff we need to know) helps it rise above mere “gotcha” documentary reporting. This is not just a Big Oil Bad story. Tickell opens his soul, telling us how oil pollution affects the reproductive health of women and babies (including his mother) in the communities where he grew up. He shows us regular folks yearning to do more for the planet and works hard to impart a few key practical points, chiefly: Diesel engines don’t have to run on diesel fuel. Buy a diesel today and you can fill your tank with veggie oil.