What would you do if you were offered $100,000 for your land? This is the question that begins filmmaker Josh Fox’s epic journey across the United States. The theatrical director turned documentary filmmaker uses a bluegrass soundtrack to offset his subject: exposure of the wrong-doings of energy giants like Halliburton and Cabot Oil & Gas. Fox’s film, Gasland, was screened at Cinema Politica McGill.
This hard-hitting, Oscar-nominated documentary opens with Fox receiving a letter in the mail from a natural gas company offering to lease his family’s land in southeastern Pennsylvania (which he introduces with vivid language and imagery) for $100,000 to drill for natural gas. Skeptical of this offer, Fox decides to inspect the practice they use to extract the gas: “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking,” effectively declaring himself a “gas detective.” In this practice, a mix of water and chemicals are blasted deep underground, causing a mini-earthquake which then frees up the gas. The mix, or “fracking fluid,” they use contains over 500 chemicals which, as we see throughout the documentary, can cause damage to the environment as well as people’s health.
This film focuses primarily on the people affected by fracking as opposed to big names who could’ve been easy targets such as legislators and other company bigwigs (Dick Cheney, as former CEO of Halliburton, is touched upon at the beginning, but is not the main focus of the film). It is filled with stories and testimonials from the people who have faced the hardships dealt to them by the companies drilling for natural gas on their land.
Some of the more striking of these are the the numerous accounts of people being able to light their water on fire, allegedly because of the contamination by the fracking fluid. These accounts become even more terrifying when actually shown on screen. When touched by a lighter, the water tap becomes engulfed in flame and creates a hellish scene; however, this is not the end of it. Diseased animals and livestock, constant daily headaches from bad drinking water, and a loss of smell and taste are only some of the negative health effects fracking has brought. The many consequences from of fracking, surprising to those who live nearby, prove to be a constant hindrance in their daily lives. A small number of people directly affected by fracking go to the media to expose the energy companies’ actions, but many are silenced by non-disclosure agreements they sign upon receiving the money from the lease of their land. The effects of fracking often go unnoticed by the wider public since they are mostly confined to small, rural communities.
Similar to a more famous documentarian, Michael Moore, Fox uses the many instances of the unwillingness of corporations and government officials to cooperate to drive his point home. Throughout the film, Fox is refused phone call after phone call, constantly being declined an interview or even a moment of a corporate spokesperson or executive’s time. When a corporate spokesperson finally agrees to meet Fox for an interview, he promptly and abruptly leaves the room. In a brief but shocking scene, a Colorado resident recounts a phone call she made to the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission. “Aren’t you supposed to be for the people, if not you who is for the people?” she asked, to which the Commission replied, “Nobody. Get an attorney.”
Although a few controversial facts in Fox’s film have been contested, the harrowing and grim Gasland certainly does still leave a pit in your stomach. Many American politicians tend to praise fracking as reducing the reliance on foreign oil, as well as creating jobs. Gasland exposes this tendency to put corporate interest on a pedestal at the expense of the environment and the American people who are actually affected. Though the camera work is at times a bit shaky and the script a bit sophomoric, the film makes for a very convincing case and holds its own in drawing the audience’s attention to the harsh realities of fracking.