104 mins, rated PG, opens in cinemas 18 Nov 2010.
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
(This is my review as published
in the November 2010 issue of The New South Wales Law Society
GasLand is a documentary… but
it’s also a horror story. It’s the latest in a long line of socially-
or politically-motivated documentaries that have been released as
features in our cinemas, such as Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), An Inconvenient Truth (Guggenheim,
2006), Enron: The Smartest Guys in
the Room (Gibney, 2005, LSJ
review, Oct 2005), and the food-oriented Super Size Me (Spurlock, 2004) and Food, Inc (Kenner, 2008).
GasLand is about exploring for
natural gas. That may not put it right at the top of your “must-see”
list, but read on. This is a very personal film, yet its subject may
have ramifications for all of us. It investigates the startling
side-effects of gas exploration and mining.
The director, writer and narrator is Josh Fox, making only his second
feature film. His story begins when he receives a letter from a gas
company, requesting permission to explore his family’s property in the
beautiful Delaware River Basin of New York State. The company is
offering almost $100,000 in return for a lease. He’s tempted to sign on
the dotted line, as he discovers many in the area have done before him.
But something tells him to make enquiries first. What he finds out will
shock and alarm you.
Technically, the film itself is not very good. Don’t be deceived by the
gorgeous publicity photograph of a pristine stream. Most of the film
was shot by Josh and his cinematographer on Fox’s camcorder. Much of
the film is very grainy, and, looks to have been “blown up” for showing
in the cinema. Worse, a lot of the film is shot and edited in a very
jumpy style: this “wobbly-cam” style is all too common today.
Fox begins his film with a pastiche of footage taken from episodes
better explained later in the film. He then complicates things by
trying to explain the process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, a
process by which water mixed with various chemicals is forced under
great pressure into the area that the gas company wants to drill, to
dislodge and dissolve rock, mud and sludge. Then he interrupts himself:
“Maybe I’ll start at the beginning. This is Dick Cheney”. And then:
“No, maybe I’ll start at a different beginning. This is my house”.
Finally, we have a coherent starting point.
As the film settles down, Fox shows his journey through those of the
United States that have been mined for their vast natural gas deposits.
What he finds are horrifying instances of contaminated water, sick
people, dying animals, strange explosions, and even flaming tap water.
He reveals the legislation that allows all this. The most important law
seems to be the Bush Administration’s Energy Policy Act of 2005
(promoted by Dick Cheney), which exempted “hydro-fracking” from the
Safe Drinking Water Act. The oil and gas industry has also successfully
lobbied for legislation that exempts them from the Clean Air Act, the
Clean Water Act and many other environmental protection laws and
regulations. Legislation in Congress that would repeal some of these
exemptions is stuck at the Committee stage at the moment.
Fox tries to interview representatives of the gas mining industry. Some
decline the interview. The others are given short shrift, or edited so
as to demonise them. And the film ends somewhat abruptly, with Fox
telling us, “This story’s not going away any time soon. It might
stretch from my backyard into yours”. So it may. According to ABC Radio
National’s Background Briefing program on 20 June 2010, miners are
already fracking away in Australia, in the Darling Downs region.
According to The Sydney Morning Herald (page 1 on 24 September 2010),
there are plans to use “fracking” to mine for gas next to Warragamba
Dam, which holds much of Sydney’s drinking water, and miners are
currently “fracking” at Camden, south of Sydney. Both the Greens and
the Total Environment Centre have called for a moratorium on coal seam
Yet I’m ambivalent about this film. On the one hand the story it tells
is alarming, and if true, very important. On the other hand, as a film
I found it technically wanting, sometimes annoying, and often hard to
watch. I’m not confident that we have been told the whole story, and
yet seeing one side of the argument at least makes us aware of the
issue, and lets us ask questions. The only way to have an opinion is to
take the plunge and see the film. Considering the film’s deficiencies,
I’m tempted to suggest you could wait until it comes to the small
screen. But as “fracking” is looming large in Australia right now, you
might prefer to see GasLand