Dale Bell and Mary Nichols. Photo courtesy of Media Policy Center.

Dale Bell cares. About, well, a lot of things.

The socially minded filmmaker co-founded the Media Policy Center in order to “inform, challenge and ultimately engage” citizens with media, according to the group’s website.

After documentaries covering everything from the opioid epidemic to making schools greener, Bell and his media group are tackling another topic that affects society — vehicle emissions and their harm towards the environment.

“Backfired” is Bell’s newest documentary that uncovers Volkswagen’s much-publicized sin of lying about their emissions tests, creating defeat devices to workaround California and U.S. emissions standards to sell non-compliant vehicles on a wide-scale. In the documentary, Bell speaks with climate change leaders, those who broke the story and more.

Bell, currently attending the Global Action Climate Summit, took the time to talk to the Daily Press about his new documentary, his socially conscious career, and how he feels about the planet and environment’s future.

Can you explain a bit about yourself and the Media Policy Center’s mission?

My business partner Harry Wiland and I created the Media Policy Center in 1999 to create social justice media that we could leverage on multiple platforms, nationally, with the expectation or hope that we could change lives.

How would you describe the documentary?

The story in the film is about how a company deliberately lied and created lethal emissions for our 600,000 consumers in this country and 11 million consumers globally.

In the process, they forced buyers of these “green cars” to be their complicit accomplices in polluting the air wherever they drove. Additionally, shareholders in Germany are suing VW because of loss of value of their stocks. Even with the $25 billion in fines that our Attorney General Kamala Harris, our DOJ, our EPA, and our CARB were able to levy against VW, this whole scandal and its ramifications are still rolling out.

The film is a morality play that’ll inform what’s going on in San Francisco’s Global Climate Action Summit these next few days and describes what has been going on with California leadership in this entire existential struggle with global climate change.

Going green, opioids, now VW — what led to this subject? Assuming you read how they lied about their emissions and did some digging?

When I made the documentary ‘Woodstock’ in 1969 and first came to California, I could not see the mountains, there was so much smog. When I married my wife Liz, she told me about California environmental history and her relationship to it through Jerry Brown in his first campaign.

When the VW scandal broke a few years ago, practically to this day, I said to her, is this the time to call Mary Nichols, Chair of California Air Resources Board? I wanted to make a film about California’s role in environmental history, jumping off the VW scandal as a can opener. Called Mary, she got back to me the next day. She liked the idea.

Within weeks, I was on an airplane, an unofficial cameraman to the Paris COP 21 talks about climate. I followed those talks and made the film. I was just yards away from Jerry Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kevin de Leon, major climate leaders.

Tech, policy and legislation are all so combined. Those people plus many, many, many others are wrestling with how to keep California in the center of climate change talks. Not just locally but nationally and internationally.

What do you hope to accomplish with “Backfired”?

I want people to think differently about their choices. Walking instead of driving, for example. The decarbonization of our tech. I want people to start their own grassroots movements to combat threats to our communities, threats to our planet.

On that note, how do you feel about the earth and the environment’s future? You seem resoundingly upbeat whereas most in this field seem cynical.

I’m not a scientist, so I can’t project solid data for you. But I do believe in grassroots social movements where people pull together on the same rope in order to create a spark of communitarianism.

And a movement, any movement, really begins with active citizens and young people.

Children can be made aware of their role in all this. Remember, it was children who began the recycling movement; kindergarten teachers would have kids separate plastic from trash … Look at Andy Lipkis and TreePeople and look at that today. Look at Denny Zane and his MoveLA campaign. Look at Black Lives Matter, the #metoo movement and Occupy Wall Street. All began with young people.

Young people like grad students who were the first that saw VW were cheating. These were kids in their 20s who said, there’s something wrong with my dials or our methodology; why are these emissions so large? That became the moment. That brought the California Air Resources Board into the solving of this big ol’ thing. But it’s young people who had the smarts to be bold enough to say something.

That can be an ember that smolders through communities and spreads into flames, a propellant that keeps us moving forward.

This climate change issue is something that can be handled. California and young people are going about it in the right way, from what I can perceive.

Warren Olney of KCRW narrates the film. Assuming the Santa Monica connection helped with that hiring?

Absolutely. I wanted a good Santa Monica connection.

Also, Warren and I are both octogenarians, so I figured we both needed a long view that only octogenarians can have. (laughs) When it came time to pick a narrator, he said he’d maybe have some time and I said that means you can narrate this film!

A serendipitous thing I discovered from Warren is that his great grandad hiked in Yosemite with John Muir. Together they created the Sierra Club. The stories that Warren was able to gather from around the dinner table or on hikes were all filled with this lore of John Muir, a great environmentalist spirit.

Speaking of Santa Monica, how are you feeling about the city’s efforts in protecting the environment?

From what I get, I sense from Dean Kubani and the sustainable works from SMC and Ben Allen and Ted Lieu and Henry Waxman’s role, I think that we are doing what communities may not be able to do. I think what we demonstrate is people working together to find common ground.

It’s Santa Monica, it’s California, and we’re progressive. We have the capability of building policy and legislation that can withstand any Trump attempt to find a ladder tall enough. It ain’t ever going to be tall enough.


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