FRANKFORT — Filmmaker Sellus Wilder hopes audiences will take to heart the message of his new documentary about citizen opposition to the Bluegrass Pipeline in 2013-14.
"Grassroots movements can win fights against multi-billion-dollar corporations," Wilder said. "The people can win the seemingly unwinnable fight."
The 90-minute film, The End of the Line, premieres Saturday at an invitation-only screening at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville.
Through interviews and footage from public meetings, the movie tells how ordinary people protested plans to build a natural gas liquids pipeline through 13 Kentucky counties. Eventually, in April 2014, the two companies that partnered to build the line halted the project because they didn't have the necessary customer commitments to move forward.
But Wilder and others believe organized opposition and a key court decision on the taking of private property played a decisive role in scuttling the project.
Pipeline representatives were "really caught off guard by the level of resistance they encountered across the state," he said.
Another message of the movie might be: Don't mess with nuns.
Wilder said he believes the Sisters of Loretto in Marion County, who opposed the pipeline crossing their property, are an important part of the movie's story because their prayers, singing at public meetings and other nonviolent protest caught the eye of NBC News, Mother Jones magazine and others.
The sisters "were key because they brought a national media attention to bear that wouldn't have been there otherwise," Wilder said.
"That also served as a signal to Kentuckians and communities that were feeling kind of under the boot that this is winnable," he said. "There was a whole infusion of energy that came in with that."
The proposed pipeline would have been part of a system that would transport natural gas liquids from Pennsylvania to the petrochemical market on the Gulf Coast. Natural gas liquids are used in the manufacture of tires, plastics and car parts.
Pipeline opponents had long held that the pipeline wouldn't directly benefit the public in the way that natural gas does for home heating and cooking.
The Kentucky Court of Appeals accepted that argument Friday when it affirmed a lower court's ruling that Bluegrass Pipeline could not use eminent domain to take private property because the company did not serve a public use and was not regulated by the Public Service Commission.
Citizens in Anderson, Franklin, Marion, Nelson, Woodford and other counties opposed the project because they said the flammable liquids posed environmental and safety concerns.
The pipeline would have also affected more than 750 rivers, streams, wetlands and ponds during construction, according to documents filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Wilder said he didn't buy company arguments that a pipeline would be a much safer method of transportation than rail or truck.
"They base that statement on U.S. Department of Transportation data that shows that other methods of transportation fail more frequently than pipelines do, which is true. There are more train and truck accidents than there are pipeline accidents.
"What they omit is the fact that the scale of destruction is exponentially greater from a pipeline accident," Wilder said.
Wilder, 34, initially shot short videos to get information out to the public about the pipeline "as an antidote to the heavy PR that was being put out by the pipeline company. But I thought it became pretty clear early on that the resistance was very real and ran pretty deep throughout Kentucky."
Later, Wilder decided to make a full-length movie by piecing together footage from public meetings.
"I'd say I shot only half to two-thirds of the movie," Wilder said. "Half the work of making the movie wasn't filming. It was tracking down and getting permission to use different pieces of material. But I did find folks really supportive and willing to go out of their way to get that material to me when they found out what the project was about and what purpose it would serve."
Some of the movie's most compelling moments "are public meetings where opponents of the pipeline are interacting with pipeline agents, or challenging and debating pipeline agents."
Wilder said he raised about $30,000 from conservationists and others who wanted to see the story told "without any expectation of getting a return on investment." More than $7,000 for post-production came from Kickstarter, the online crowd-funding site.
In addition, the Louisville Film Society, a nonprofit that supports independent movie-making, extended its nonprofit status to the movie. That meant private contributions were tax-deductible.
Wilder said he feels some urgency to get the movie before audiences now as yet another pipeline project has Kentucky's attention.
Kinder Morgan has proposed to change the product flowing through its existing Tennessee Gas Pipeline from natural gas to natural gas liquids. It would also reverse the flow through the line that crosses 18 Kentucky counties, so the current south-to-north flow of product would become north-to-south.
Residents in several Central Kentucky counties, particularly Boyle and Marion, are concerned about the possibility of an explosion in the underground line or a leak and subsequent contamination of drinking water.
When he's not a filmmaker, Wilder and his wife, Jessie Bessinger, dote on their daughter Jamie, 6, and son Leo, 2½ .
Wilder briefly served on the Frankfort City Commission. In the 2010 November general election, he won more votes than seven other candidates, which made him mayor pro tem, the person who acts as mayor when the mayor is unable to attend to his duties. But Wilder lost re-election in 2012.
"I think that politics and filmmaking are both valid ways of trying to change the world," he added. "I learned that I enjoy filmmaking a lot more.
"Being provocative or controversial can be a boon to a filmmaker — or at least not something you need to be afraid of — and it's anathema to a public servant. I just feel a little more liberated in this position."