Emotions ran high at a Q&A session following a sneak preview of the documentary, “Cape Spin: An American Power Struggle,” on August 2 at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. A crowd of close to 250 viewed the film, which covers the controversy over the Cape Wind commercial project to build 130 wind turbines on Horseshoe Shoals in Nantucket Bay, shown by the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society.
Seven panelists faced members of the audience who stayed to discuss the film’s handling of a dispute that has divided Islanders and caused some prominent advocates and critics to change sides in midstream.
The panelists included “Cape Spin’s” directors Robbie Gemmel and John Kirby; executive producers Libby Handros and Josh Levin of The Electron Project; Paul Pimentel of Vineyard Power; WCAI reporter Sean Corcoran; and moderator Siobhan O’Mahony, a Boston University associate professor in the School of Management.
Although Cape Wind representatives did not participate as panelists, they attended the screening and listened, for the most part without comment, to the lively debate that followed. Nor were pro and con advocates of the project, who appeared in the newest version of the as-yet-unfinished film, included on the panel, but 40 of them made the trip from the mainland to watch it, and, in some cases, participate in the post-film discussion.
Most members of the Islander-based audience preferred to state their personal points of view rather than ask the questions about the film Professor O’Mahony tried to solicit. First out of the box was Osterville resident and project opponent Audra Parker, C.E.O. of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, who told the audience “Cape Spin” “made a mockery of how serious this issue is.”
Ms. Parker argued that the film used misleading information and made her — and her opponent, Barbara Hill of Clean Power Now in the controversy — look foolish. She said clean, renewable energy is available at a third of the cost of the projected Cape Wind project.
One audience member observed that Ms. Parker has been paid $100,000 by anti-Cape Wind coal magnate Bill Koch, while another argued that Cape Wind, which received federal approval from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in April of this year, would not be happening without federal subsidies.
“We’re looking at the bigger picture,” countered co-director Gemmel. Bob Skydell, founder of Offshore Ale, said “I support Cape Wind and I think the movie did a pretty good job of a balanced view.”
Cape Cod fisherman Cliff Carroll, who appears in the film and founded Windstop, a fisherman’s advocacy group, claimed the film’s first version got into the issues with more insight. “Is it too late to go back and redo your film?” asked another audience member.
“How many people changed their minds?” the panelists asked at one point. Not many raised their hands. Frequent audience comment was that the film was biased.
“I had to stop myself from walking out,” said one audience member. “Please do your homework.” Another observed the issue is very complicated, and it isn’t over.
Co-director Gemmel, who has worked for the PBS series Nova, said, “We could have made a 12-part documentary series, but it would have been boring. A project like this has impact.” Some audience members argued he had turned a serious documentary into an entertainment vehicle.
Co-director Kirby cited Vineyard Power, the Island’s cooperative wind power venture, as providing an approach that might solve the renewable energy problem. “Everyone comes out a hero there,” he added.
Some wondered what would happen if a Category Four hurricane hit the wind turbines. Others wanted to know why so much time had been spent covering mountaintop coal mining, which they felt was irrelevant to the Cape Wind project.
Mr. Kirby defended inclusion of mountaintop coal mining as absolutely germane. “The Last Mountain,” a documentary about West Virginia’s mountaintop coal mining, will screen August 17 with the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival and will be attended by environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Mr. Kirby praised Vineyard Power for offering “a step in the right direction.” The producers told critics of the film if they didn’t like the project, “You can build your own. You can show the way.”
Vineyard Power’s Mr. Pimentel asked the audience if they had white plastic lawn furniture and had noticed black spots on them. “It’s ash from the coal plant at Bright Point,” he said. “We have got to get a hold of our environment.”
Chilmark fisherman Matthew Mayhew asked the audience and panel to consider the location itself. He argued that Cape Wind had not indicated whether fishermen’s boats would be allowed in the area of the turbines. “You’re taking away a public resource,” he said.
WCAI’s Mr. Corcoran, who appears in the film, observed there is a split among environmentalists between those most concerned with the local picture and those worried about the broader picture. “It’s all related,” he said.
“We wanted to make a film that would make people think about the issue,” said executive producer Handros. “So maybe we have done our job.”
Discussion continued after the Q&A session was over. Tisbury resident Steve Zablotny, who produced audio for the screening and panel, suggested the film’s choice of music trivialized the issue and termed the production techniques “immature David Letterman style.”
Also commenting after the Q&A session, Cape Wind executives Mark Rodger and Dennis Duffy defended their project by saying there had been 50 public hearings and 100,00 pages of studies indicating it was safe. “Offshore wind power costs one-third that of solar,” added Mr. Duffy. He pointed to 20 years of successful wind turbines built in Europe’s North Sea.
Brooks Robards, of Oak Bluffs and Northampton, is a frequent contributor to The Times.