“DENIAL”— Facing Facts

“DENIAL”

Facing Facts

Amos Lassen

Before Christine Hallquist ran for Governor of Vermont, she was David Hallquist, the CEO of the largest locally owned electric utility in Vermont.  Hallquist saw himself as a “closet environmentalist” and others saw him that way. Hallquist is dedicated to addressing the way electricity use in America contributes to climate change.  But his mission is balanced with the utility’s charge to provide affordable and reliable service.  For Hallquist, increasing the efficiency of the grid was the only meaningful route to merging these priorities. With that in mind, “he implemented one of the country’s first ‘smart’ grids, decreasing outages, increasing the capacity for renewable sources and building a national reputation as an energy pioneer.”  We understand that resistance, however, comes in many forms and also from those opposed to renewable intermittency, solar and wind advocates  who thought Hallquist was dragging his feet, and the public fears that ‘smart’ meters on their homes  would send private information about their energy use to the government.

As Hallquist struggled to build the kind of transparent company whose honest approach can get stakeholders to accept the realities of how we generate and deliver electricity, he realized he must apply that same transparency to his personal life and reveals to his son a lifelong secret. Dave Hallquist, who presents as a chainsaw-wielding, hard hat-wearing CEO in a male-dominated industry is a woman inside.

Now, his son Derek’s family must face facts that feel far more immediate than the energy concerns. The personal and the societal come together as Derek learns that his father, newly named Christine,  is still indeed his father – and that Christine’s unique perspective as the first American Transgender CEO to transition in office, may be just the what the limiting, binary worldview on energy and the environment needs.

Derek Hallquist (Director, Writer, Producer) has spent most of his life working on the documentary “Denial”, which premiered at the LA film festival in 2016 and has won awards at film festivals around the country. His father, Christine David Hallquist (CEO-VEC) is the first transgender candidate for Governor in the United States.  She moved to Vermont in 1976. At the beginning of Christine’s tenure as CEO, the Coop was in severe financial distress, and the state was considering pulling its certificate of public good.

Christine has always believed that people begin each day wanting to do the best job possible.  As head of VEC, she viewed her job as empowering the Coop’s employees by giving them the tools they needed to do so. Embracing this philosophy, Christine worked with VEC’s 107 employees to not only rebuild the Coop’s finances, but also to transform it into a national leader on using renewable sources of electricity production to combat climate change. She was the chair of the strategies and technical advisory committees of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association where she advocated for innovative technology that enabled high penetration of renewables onto the grid. Today, under Christine’s visionary leadership and steady hand, VEC’s bond ratings are solid, and the Coop has not had a rate increase in more than four years. VEC meets 96 percent of its energy needs from carbon-free sources, compliance with the state’s goals to achieve the 100 percent renewable mandate for 2050.   

Over the years Christine has also devoted her time and leadership skills to her local community. She has served as Hyde Park Town Meeting Day Moderator for the past five years, served twelve years on the Lamoille Economic Development Corporation Board, chaired the Sterling Area Services Mental Health Board, and served on the Hyde Park School Board. She is a member of United Community Church in Morrisville. In speaking about her time at VEC and her work at the community level, Christine has stated that “the values of cooperation among cooperatives and concern for community are a great basis for leadership at the state level. The power of people who want to do good, working together, is more powerful than their individual skills.”

Christine’s experience as head of VEC and her national prominence as an expert on the electric grid and climate change inspired her cinematographer son Derek to direct the biographical documentary about her entitled Denial. While in the process of filming Denial in 2015, Christine made the decision, after years of holding it inside, to come out as her true self, a transgender woman, becoming the first business leader in the country to transition while in office.

 Derek Hallquist decided to film his father but there was a problem— while the nation’s enormous electricity grid works okay with the amount of wind and solar energy produced at the moment, it will have increasing problems as more is created. The wind and sun aren’t reliable in terms of the amount of energy they can produce and there is no economical way to store excess energy for use when the wind dies down or the sun goes behind clouds. there will be large issues if there’s high demand and not enough sun or wind to meet that. Dave thinks the answer is smart products, which can talk to the grid and adjust their power demands depending on the supply – taking more when it’s plentiful and less when it isn’t.

Unsurprisingly, with many politicians still skeptical about the existence of climate change, and it sounds difficult and potentially raises privacy concerns, it’s difficult to get people to listen. This, however was minor compared to what Dave had going on in his life. After decades of keeping t to himself, and with his kids now grown, he decided to share with them that he is transgender and would be spending an increasing amount of his time living as a woman. As we can well imagine, Derek was shocked at first but gradually accepted the idea. He became concerned about his father, now Christine, moving back and forth between genders and wondered if Christine’s private struggles would be reflected in her public life as Dave. Are Christine’s worries about being rejected by society and others around her allied to her decision to call for a moratorium on new renewable energy projects in Vermont – where she’s also concerned society isn’t ready to accept the truth? Yet, as she becomes more comfortable living more publicly as a woman, Christine also begins to find a renewed passion for moving forward to find solutions, rather than stopping everything until the problems have already gone away.

Derek had to find a way to get two very different themes to come together in one filmed documentary. And because the two themes are so different, in the beginning we seem to be watching two distinct films with one title. This could be because of Derek’s initial mixed feelings about his father’s revelation. He is still compartmentalizing things and in his head is still splitting Dave the engineer, from Christine the transgender woman. As the documentary moves forward, it all comes together. Derek realizes that Dave and Christine are not completely separate entities, and that the journey his father is on in terms of both being transgender and trying to fight back against climate, is the same story, rather than two separate stories.

The final third shows the effects of denial on both Christine and some people’s attitudes towards climate change and we see that some things are painful and difficult— it’s easier to try to ignore them than deal with them. However, Dave’s transition to Christine, as difficult and with a much uncertainty as it causes, shows there is a way forward, and that while people may not like change, when they face a truth they cannot deny, many will adapt to it and learn from it. Pretending the truth is something else is no good for anyone.

In the film, Derek interviews those closest to his father including family members, co-workers, and community leaders.  It’s obvious that Derek is very close with his family and concerned about the effects of his film on others, particularly his parents.  Christine strongly felt that this film was Derek’s story and that “…he needs to tell it completely from his own perspective. 

“Denial” is a very personal movie for Derek and having spent 8 years on it, taking time away from his own family, there is a bit of anger and perhaps resentment toward it.  He still struggles with accepting his father as and with how this has impacted his mother. Derek’s emotions are raw and open, and viewers feel his pain and frustration.  Since the film, Christine has received both local and national support.  Thankfully, she has not seen any evidence that her continued efforts toward renewable energy sources has been compromised as she transitioned into Christine. 

“Denial” is  timely and relevant and is told with bold and powerful emotion.  We see that we can face our fears and the unknown, educate ourselves, and be open to new and different ideas if we allow ourselves to be. 

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