Gasland: intelligent and unassuming documentary on fracking

Josh Fox, “Gasland” (2010)

Written, filmed, narrated and directed by Josh Fox, this documentary is a personal journey investigating the nature and environmental impact of the hydraulic fracturing process (fracking) used by natural gas companies to drill for gas in parts of the United States. The project arose when Fox received a letter from one such company offering to lease his family’s property in a rural part of Pennsylvania for $100,000 to drill for natural gas. Curious about what the offer involved, Fox researched natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale area that underlies his neighbourhood and much of the northeastern US as far as Ohio. He met families who’d already signed such leases and, after drilling had started, could set their tap water on fire, were suffering from health problems and believed their water supplies were contaminated with methane and other toxins. This discovery led him to drive to Colorado, Wyoming and Texas where projects drilling for natural gas have been operating for several years and to meet farmers, ranchers and other rural folk who also had health problems arising from contaminated water and were worried about the environmental problems the drilling was causing.

Interspersed in the home-movie documentary are interviews with scientists, politicians and gas industry representatives who give their sides to the issue. Along with the personal stories of the communities affected by the drilling, this makes for a low-key, even-handed if repetitive presentation. Near the end of the documentary, Fox records a discussion by a US Congressional subcommittee into legislation to amend an act, originally introduced by former US Vice-President Dick Cheney in 2005, that gave exemptions to gas and other energy companies from acts regulating water quality and protecting the enrvironment, and allowed them to prospect and drill for resources with impunity.

The documentary’s emphasis is on the stories of people and communities affected by fracking and how it devastates their livelihood and the countryside around them. One cattle rancher’s story in particular I found very touching as he spoke of his property having been in his and his wife’s families for a long time and of his concern about the effects of the fracking – there were over 20 drilling wells on the land – on the cows and their calves, and on the land gemerally. The stories tend to be very similar which makes the film repetitive but they all strongly suggest that certain phenomena have occurred in connection with the fracking which should be followed and documented by a proper and independent scientific study. I have the impression that “Gasland” is intended to serve as a witness for the people interviewed and to the events occurring as a possible result of fracking, and the film could be used to launch such an investigation.

Fox adopts a low-key approach to interviewing his subjects and making the documentary so it has the feel of news reporting as it might have been done once upon a time before information became infotainment. His voice-over narration might be too fast for some viewers to follow, especially when he talks about the fracking process and what inputs it requires (lots of water and nearly 600 different chemcials injected into rock to bring the gas to the surface), but dry humour and modesty are present. The quality of the filming isn’t great – much of it was filmed by Fox himself using handheld cameras so it’s jumpy in parts and often looks very washed out and slightly blurred – but there is a homely feel as well, helped by the inclusion of Fox strumming a banjo and a sparing country music soundtrack. He fits in shots of the countryside as well: beautiful mountain landscapes under snow, broad grassy plains across Wyoming and lush green forests in Pennsylvania; and the whole time you’re watching the scenery pass by as Fox drives along you’ll be thinking of the destruction and pollution that are sure to occur in these pristine areas if energy companies are allowed to drill there: very clever film-making indeed.

Maybe “Gasland” isn’t as slick and slapstick as some of Michael Moore’s documentaries but its unassuming approach with its first-person viewpoint and emphasis on the personal connection Fox has with the fracking issue brings the subject and its opposed sides to the fore and forces viewers to take a stand. Fox doesn’t offer any solutions; he simply says it’s up to individual viewers to decide what to do after the end credits roll onto the screen. Some people might see this as a weakness, that Fox doesn’t advocate a particular stand or suggest ways in which viewers might help the people interviewed or mobilise against gas companies should they come knocking at the front door with papers full of tiny print to sign, as they did to Fox. There may well be inaccuracies and bending of the truth in the some of the stories presented and various US state politicians and natural gas companies have already emphasised many of them in a defensive way. For all its faults – and we have to remember it was made on a small budget – “Gasland” is an intelligent film that treats its subject, interviewees and audiences with respect and encourages viewers to find out more about fracking and its consequences for people, communities and the environment.

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