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Films with Austin ties aim to take open-minded look at energy issues

Asher Price
asherprice@statesman.com
Documentary filmmaker Gregory Kallenberg. Courtesy: Rational Middle

Scott Tinker is not only a super-smart University of Texas geologist. He also, it turns out, possesses on-screen charisma, enough to carry an engaging new movie in which he stars and co-wrote.

The movie, “Switch,” is a cousin of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” Here’s Tinker, the director of UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology, bathing in geothermal waters in Iceland; here he takes in, awestruck, a massive hydropower plant in Norway; there he is, checking his radiation levels within a nuclear plant in Texas; here he’s catching an auto-rickshaw in India; and there he’s examining the energy potential of switchgrass in upstate New York.

That’s maybe half the places he visits.

If “Switch” seems like a whirlwind adventure, that’s the point: Our energy future is a complicated mix of sources and economics. “Switch” refers to a challenge Tinker ponders at the start of the movie: What will the energy transition look like in coming decades?

Tinker wants to see our sources of energy for himself, and he takes us along for this beautifully shot ride, excellent in its details: Two bikes leaning against rocks with a Danish windmill spinning in the background or a closeup of Tinker’s digital radiation monitor as he tours the nuclear power plant. Despite his own expertise, Tinker plays reporter just right, managing to ask basic questions that get to the heart of the problems and opportunities with each source of energy.

As he globe-trots, he genuinely mixes a kind of gee-whiz wonderment at the way energy is mined (whether it be coal or wind) with pithy, on-the-mark observations about the realities of those sources.

In a way, the “Inconvient Truth” comparison is an unfair one: Yes, like Gore, Tinker ends his film promoting energy conservation. But if Gore was on a crusade, Tinker is on a reconnaissance mission of the energy landscape. He foresees the increasing use of renewables, natural gas and nuclear power in the U.S. But he also offers a sobering forecast of why we’re unlikely to shake coal and oil for a long time.

The film is less about the dangers of global warming than about the realistic topography of this landscape’s future.

The Tinker film, which was directed by Harry Lynch and produced by Austin’s Arcos Films, is one of two movies that aim at an honest discussion about energy issues.

Gregory Kallenberg, a former reporter at the American-Statesman and the director of the documentary “Haynesville,” about natural gas drilling in rural Louisiana, has turned to making a web documentary series called “Rational Middle.”

The films, available at rationalmiddle.com, aim to “take the heat of the room” in the oft-charged conversations about energy policy, Kallenberg said in an interview. He genuinely wants the films to encourage open-minded conversations about energy policy, and the website has forums to do just that.

The series’ chief sponsor is Shell. Kallenberg said the company has no editorial say in the films.

Keeping with the effort to play things down the middle, the films are far more descriptive than evaluative. (Needless to say, the series lacks the elbows of “Gasland.”) If this can lead to a lot of talking heads — albeit very smart ones — it can also lead to entertaining bits: One short film, without any dialogue, follows one Austin family from wakeup to bedtime while keeping steady count of their energy use.

Screenings of “Switch” in Austin are free, with the purchase of a $5 food voucher at Alamo theaters. Friday: Alamo South Lamar, 7 p.m.; Sunday: Alamo South Lamar, 4 p.m.; Monday: Alamo Lake Creek, 7 p.m.; Tuesday: Alamo Slaughter Lane, 7 p.m.; Thursday: Alamo Village, 7 p.m.