[13 March 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“That’s my father,” says Molly Forbes over a grainy image of a farmer. “He was a prize plower, my father. He has lots of cups and medals.” The screen shows her father, leaned low and back against the forward pull of his horses, so the plow digs deeper into the land. As the camera pulls back to show Molly watching the old footage on a laptop, she nods: “I know my father’s style of plowing.”
Molly’s memories, framed so neatly on the laptop, seem also to stretch before her, as her window looks out on the wild grass and sandy dunes of Scotland’s Aberdeenshire coast. That land is the subject of some controversy in You’ve Been Trumped, which traces the efforts of Donald Trump to construct “the world’s greatest golf course” here, in the “birthplace of golf.”
Screening at Washington DC’s Environmental Film Festival on 13 March, Anthony Baxter’s film shows that the planned $1.2 billion, 1200-acre course ran into trouble from the start. After purchasing the Menie Estate and dunes, Trump presented plans to the Aberdeenshire Council, which rejected it in 2007. Councilmember Martin Ford explains that the proposal “failed in spades,” because it was not designed to help the local economy, but rather, “predicated on long distance tourism… on people flying across the Atlantic to play a few games of golf and flying back across the Atlantic.” He goes on, “It was predicated on utilizing an irreplaceable and diminishing resource of effectively natural habitat.” But, almost as soon as it was made, the local council’s decision was overturned by the national government, and Trump’s project went forward, with Donald Jr. named the Property Developer.
Baxter is on hand when Trump greets Miss Scotland under a fancy tent and Donald Jr. announces he’s excited to get started on the course, which “will be etched into this land forever.” Long, wide shots underline the beauty of “this land” before the etching commences, while closer shots show Trump’s photo op—complete with a golf club and bagpipers—where Baxter asks Trump about his handling of local residents, like Michael Forbes, who have refused to sell their land. “Calling Mr. Forbes and his property names,” essays Baxter from off-screen, “How does that help?” Trump jumps right in: “His property is terribly maintained, it’s slum-like, it’s disgusting. He’s got stuff thrown all over the place, he lives like a pig. I saw that and I’m an honest guy and I speak honestly, and I think that’s why some people like me and some people probably don’t like me.”
Interviews with locals suggest this isn’t precisely the reason they “dislike” Trump. Rather, they see him as dishonest, promising jobs that don’t materialize and benefits that have nothing to do with them, that is, a 450-room hotel and holiday apartments priced far beyond their means. As the construction proceeds, some 400 trees are cut down and buried, the dunes Trump says he’s “saved” are flattened, and views are blocked by a program of berming designed to set off the golf courses (two) from nearby farms. Owners of those properties commiserate: Susan Munro laments, “This man, this foreigner, comes in, just because he’s got a few pounds in his pocket, a bit of a name, and we’re just cast aside we’re in the way. It’s an awful way to treat people.” And Mickey Foote, former producer for the Clash and current Aderdeenshire resident, defends Michael Forbes against the “claptrap that Trump’s PR machine put out about him.”
In its broadest sense, this story of an international corporation imposing its will on a local community is familiar. Indeed, You’ve Been Trumped cites a very familiar version, Bill Forsyth’s 1983 Local Hero, to highlight Trump’s bullying and Forbes’ opposition, as well as Aberdeenshire’s fundamental charms and the environmental costs of the construction. But the film takes a turn when Baxter is arrested by local policemen.
The event is precipitated by apparently intentional harassments, as a road is built on top of Forbes’ spring, and he and his neighbors lose their water (the octogenarian Molly must take a wheelbarrow down to a nearby stream in order to water her hens). After Baxter pesters a manager at the Menie Estate (“Are you filming now?”, the man asks, “Would you might not filming here?”), a police cruiser comes by, leaves, and then backs back into frame. The frame careens as the policemen reach for Baxter’s camera as Susan Munro, another neighbor who’s on hand to observe the action, provides narration after the fact: “And then the next thing I know, you’re wrestling over the bonnet of Finley’s van, this policeman attacking you, trying to wrestle the camera off you.” And then the frame goes black.
It’s an odd and disturbing moment. In the film’s narrative, the arrest seems, as Munro proclaims, “totally out of order” (an officer mentions an “alleged break-in at the estate,” a point that remains unpressed when Baxter is released four hours later). In the film’s structure, as well, the moment is strange, a formal break that gives way to questions rather than answers.
But if it’s not clear who authorized the arrest or whether community authorities were colluding with the Trump construction site or what happened to the footage that was confiscated, the film leaves no doubt as to what this particular injustice—rough and rambunctious—represents in a wider context. As Trump appears on Letterman or on Scottish TV to disparage challengers (Forbes’ property is “nothing I need”) and promote the project (“They love the fact that I’m creating jobs”), and even receives an honorary degree from Robert Gordon University in Schoolhill Aberdeen (in recognition of “Mr. Trump’s ability to make money,” notes one observer), the film counters with a series of small-scale, low-budget, local moments. It follows David Kennedy’s return of his Robert Gordon University degree (because awarding one to Trump “is making a mockery of the system”), Susan Munro’s work on a campaign called “Tripping Up Trump,” and Baxter’s own continuing efforts to secure an actual interview with the Donald.
Such protests can’t achieve their desired effects, they can’t stop the project. But still, You’ve Been Trumped insists on their importance and also on the importance of seeing them. Recognizing, documenting, and contributing to the protests, the film does what it can do, making visible the effects of corporate aggression. As trees and dunes and birds disappear, flags are erected over the golf courses and the luxury hotel spreads over the landscape.
As the project goes forward (set to be completed next year), so too does debate. And now, after the film’s completion, it appears that Trump has run into another sort of problem, as the Scottish government has okayed the construction of noisy wind turbines just over a mile from the course. Trump complains that wind energy is inefficient, indeed, that this proposed farm will destroy the coastline and “Scotland will go broke.” Liberal Democrats leader Willie Rennie has responded: “He can’t bully Scotland against meeting its climate change obligations and renewable energy ambitions.”