Derek Hallquist was 14 when he first picked up a camera to film his father, the chief executive officer of the Vermont Electric Cooperative, responding to power outages. So when the aspiring moviemaker grew up and went on to shoot a documentary — envisioned as an exploration of the 21st century challenges of energy efficiency and climate change — he again aimed his lens at his dad.
“It didn’t really interest a lot of people,” Hallquist recalls of the initial footage. “They said, ‘It’s kind of dry.’”
Then the patriarch surprised his son with a long-unspoken revelation: The “old man” everyone knew as David was actually a woman named Christine.
Confused personally and professionally, Derek Hallquist put down his camera.
“I just quit — I thought the film was over.”
But this week, the 34-year-old will screen his new hour-and-a-half feature, “Denial,” at Waitsfield’s MountainTop Film Festival as part of a national tour.
“‘Denial’ tackles two of today’s most controversial and topical issues,” the playbill promises. “Our energy crisis and transgender issues at first glance seem miles apart but ultimately are united by the struggles of one man confronting problems everyone else would rather ignore.”
The moviemaker foresaw a much different documentary when, nearly a decade ago, he decided to film his father, as well as Vermont environmental author and activist Bill McKibben and Tony Klein, former chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Energy Committee, for a project tentatively titled “Power to the People.”
The Hyde Park native has worked as a cameraman for the Discovery television networks and HBO’s “Reagan,” winner of a 2012 Emmy award for outstanding historical programming, and as director of photography for “The House I Live In,” winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s 2012 Grand Jury Documentary Prize. But his initial attempt to capture his home state’s fight against global warming was anything but electric.
“I got to believe that flossing my teeth is not going to make the final cut,” his father muttered on camera after being filmed shaving.
“You’d be surprised,” replied the son, who would surprise himself by capturing his parent applying makeup in front of the same mirror.
The movie’s big reveal — “I’m a woman inside” — arrives 20 minutes in. But the filmmaker needed almost a year to regroup as his family grappled with the news. Escaping with his camera to the melting snow of Barrow, Alaska, and monstrous smokestacks of Beijing, he hit upon his own discovery.
“How could I expect the world to face its truth,” he says in the film, “if I couldn’t face mine?”
He went on to shoot 400 hours of footage everywhere from the Kingdom Community Wind project atop Lowell Mountain to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ office in Washington, D.C.
“People in general don’t want to hear the truth,” his father is heard saying after a news conference about the nation’s aging electrical grid. “It’s because you’re in denial you’ve got to deal with all these things. They’re doing the same thing as I was doing denying my truth.”
But not even a breathtaking series of bird’s-eye views (captured by high-tech drones) can compete with the filmmaker’s reaction to his dad confiding a second piece of worrisome yet ultimately welcomed news (no spoilers here) that unexpectedly would speed his transition.
“This is stranger than fiction,” his son says while fleeing the dinner table. “This is really insane for me to digest.”
The resulting film premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where IndieWire deemed it one of “11 Films We Cannot Wait to See,” saying: “Balancing a greater subject with a strong personal tie is never an easy task for a director, but the way that these topics resonate beyond environmental and social makes it one of the most timely entries in the lineup.”
Christine David Hallquist will appear not only on screen but also at question-and-answer sessions after each showing.
“I don’t think anybody knew how this would materialize, myself included,” she says. “Because it talks about climate change and gender, it automatically starts the polarization process. But you just don’t know what to make of this story until you see it. This stuff’s really hard. There are no easy answers.”
Even for her.
“It was like tearing a Band-Aid off a wound,” she says of first seeing the movie. “It wasn’t until the third time that I was able to embrace its beauty.”
Her son is arranging more Vermont screenings, as well as public television, video-on-demand and school distribution, with details on the film’s website. He rewinds back nearly a decade to his initial vision before he focused his camera, met and married his wife, bought a house, fathered his own children — and discovered that was only the tip of his world’s ever-changing iceberg.
“A smart-grid movie would have been watched by engineers and gearheads,” Derek Hallquist says. “This we can all get something from. I describe the film as discovering life is a lot more complicated — and it doesn’t happen in perfect lighting.”