The showing of “Generation on the Wind” with Vassar at Sonora Opera Hall is scheduled 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday Nov. 11. Tickets are $15. For more information about the event and the ITSA Film Festival go online to http://itsafilmfestival.com/special-presentation-david-vassar-2016.
Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and Arnold resident David Vassar, who was a student in 1970 when he captured newsworthy stills and footage of the Stoneman Meadow Riot in Yosemite Valley, will be a featured presenter at the ITSA Film Festival Nov. 11 at Sonora Opera Hall.
Vassar, whose Backcountry Pictures is based in Murphys, will show his Oscar-nominated 1979 documentary “Generation on the Wind” in its entirety for the first time in 35 years.
“Generation on the Wind” focuses on a group of backyard mechanics, artists and environmentalists who in 1976 were trying to build a windmill to generate electricity on a remote island off the coast of Massachusetts.
The backdrop is the energy crisis of the 1970s, which hit home in the U.S. when Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries imposed an oil embargo against the U.S. during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The embargo was in response to the U.S. decision to resupply the Israeli military and to gain leverage in postwar peace negotiations.
The cost of gasoline rose from 39 cents a gallon in 1970 to $1.19 a gallon in 1980. With long lines at gas stations and the economy tanking, identifying alternative energy sources suddenly made sense to people.
Artist Allan Spaulding explains in a clip from Vassar’s documentary, filmed Sept. 21, 1976, on Cuttyhunk Island, “The last piece I did was a windmill. And I did it as a piece of kinetic sculpture and the idea was that it was supposed to do some work.
“So I had it pump water. But I never expected it to be very efficient or actually pump very much water. Well, it pumps a lot of water. And it pumps so much water that they have to turn it off. So that got me really interested in windmills. Because pumping water is just a form of doing work. Making electricity’s a form of doing work. And I thought if it can do that that well, it ought to be able to make electricity . . . .
“So I started cataloging it and, of course, the first thing that happens when you do that is you say, ‘Well could I ever sell these things?’ Well, no you really can’t. At that time, this was 1969, you couldn’t because they cost so much more than the fuel-burning type of generator. So I just kept this catalog and went on about my business and all of a sudden they had, the Arabs did all the rest of my work for me.”
Spaulding was in his early 30s back then. Vassar was 26 and he sensed a story worth filming. He raised financing from his lawyer and landlord. He spent a year documenting construction of the giant wind turbine. It was 80 feet tall with blades 30 feet to 40 feet long and it was made of steel and aluminum. It was the largest electricity-generating windmill in the world at that time.
“It was an engineering story as well as a story of the American spirit, but most of all it was a story about generating power from a renewable resource,” Vassar said.
The Nov. 11 event in Sonora will be the first time in 35 years the documentary will be shown in its entirety because in 1981, the 58-minute film was cut down to 22 minutes for educational distribution and classroom use, according to Backcountry Pictures.
During that process, the original A/B negative was cut and trims from the 58-minute version were lost. All that remained of the original version was a 16mm color reversal internegative, a few 16mm release prints, and a one-inch videotape that was broadcast on PBS.
In 2016, Josef Lindner and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Archive completed reconstruction and restoration of the 58-minute program, using the original A/B negative and the color reversal internegative as a C-roll. Original 35mm magnetic audio tracks were also found and included in the reconstruction.
Initiative, camaraderie, creativity
Vassar, who was born in Los Angeles in 1951, said Tuesday he is excited about showing the full version of his documentary in Sonora. He said he knows the Mother Lode and the Central Sierra from experience.
“I made my first film in Yosemite, and worked as a seasonal interpretive ranger in Yosemite for three summers, ’71, ’72 and ’73,” Vassar said. He lived in El Portal those three summers. In 2010 he and his wife bought a house in Arnold and they’ve been full-time residents there since 2012.
“At the time, after I did three summers in Yosemite, I worked in D.C. for the park service, then did an apprenticeship with the film unit at Smithsonian,” Vassar said. “Over time, working with curators who collect historic objects you tend to get a sense for what might have importance in the future.
In the 1970s, he had no idea wind and wind power would be part of important energy production, he said. Nobody was thinking about renewable energy or global warming or climate change.
“It didn’t dawn on me that it would historically significant until years later,” Vassar said. “I was more drawn to young people who were doing something, actually building something. Who knows if it was going to change the world. It was all part of that ’60s generation who were trying to change things.”
He said he was attracted to the character of the people who were building the windmill, “the initiative, the camaraderie and the creativity of the guys who were building it.”
He said he thinks the documentary still has universal relevance today because it’s a first chapter in the story of renewable energy, and “it’s kind like being in the basement with Thomas Edison or Henry Ford.”