In 2006 director Josh Fox received a letter from a natural gas company offering him a hefty rental fee in exchange for drilling on his family's acreage in the Catskills Mountains. Set in the bucolic parts of Pennsylvania that James Carville once lovingly referred to as the "Alabama" in between the state's major metropolitan areas, natural gas companies have been using a controversial drilling process called hydraulic fracturing ("fracking" for fun) with disastrous results. Chemical leaks and sloppy drilling practices have led to polluted rivers, thousands of dead animals and drinking water so contaminated that it's flammable right out of the faucet.
background in theater serves GasLand well. He is a pathologically
likeable host through an emotionally arduous journey of
collecting water samples and brutally sad stories
from people across the nation who had no idea their land or water had
been compromised until their families became violently ill. With
excessive permissions granted by local governments indemnifying the
energy companies from any liability, most people affected have very
little recourse -- even in cases where the local news media has picked
up on the extremely telegenic disaster of flames shooting out of
people's kitchen sinks. With no one on the hook and damaged ground water
making their homes uninhabitable, most affected people have had to
simply abandon their homes, making the quest for "clean and safe" energy
sources feel like a modern day, profit-inflicted Dust Bowl.
What emerges in GasLand is an old-fashioned oral history of
people blighted by corporations and twice sold out by their government
-- first by regulators and then by representatives. Now more than happy
to run the risk of upsetting the powers that be in their small towns and
sharing their stories (and water samples) with Team GasLand. And while
their fate seems fairly close to sealed at this point, it's thrilling to
see people who live extremely secluded lives working collectively to
take on giants.
Winner of the Special Jury prize at Sundance earlier this year, GasLand is also a thrilling marvel to behold in editing. When sitting with a rancher discussing his rapidly disintegrating way of life, the film stays very still and contemplates the beautiful rolling buttes of Utah that will soon be too toxic to be within 100 miles of. But the film also employs an army of statistical data, legal documents and scientific research -- relying on graphs, fonts and beat-perfect cutting to boil down intimidatingly, large concepts into talking points that serve to galvanize its audience.
GasLand is not an
environmental film per se, it's uninterested in taking a stand on which
method of energy collection will provide future generations with the
most pleasing ratio of doom to comfort. It's an expose on how invisible
people (in this case, rural and/or poor) will always be the first to
bear the brunt of faulty, short-term decision-making.
GasLand airs on HBO Monday June 21st and screened at the 2010 HotDocs International Film Festival.