As the name suggests, GasLand is a documentary about gas, but thankfully not of the flatulent kind. Rather it is about natural gas, or to be more specific, an equally suggestive process known as “fracking”. Fracking is a term I had never heard of before, but thanks to the surprisingly solid investigative documentary by novice filmmaker maker Josh Fox, it’s something I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.
Fracking, as it turns out, is short for an engineering technique known as hydraulic fracturing; a process whereby large areas of land are cracked and fractured by technologically-driven mini-earthquakes to allow for the extraction of natural gas. Via informative animations and montages, Fox explains how fracking is the most commonplace process for tapping into land-based basins of natural gas, and in the United States it’s on the verge of becoming even more widespread as new and lucrative gas deposits have been discovered right along the Eastern United States, from the Carolinas all the way to Pennsylvania and New York State. And yes, it happens in Australia too.
The problem with this, argues Fox, is that fracking is far from safe as it has a powerfully damaging and lasting impact on peoples’ health and the surrounding ecosystem. In the spirit of a Michael Moore documentary, Gasland is not shy about purporting its agenda, constructing a compelling narrative framework to support that agenda from the get-go. Fox’s argument goes something like this: natural gas companies bankroll political campaigns (mostly Republicans); politicians – led by the nefarious Dick Cheney – remove long standing environmental protection regulations; natural gas companies expand extraction facilities including the use of hydraulic fracturing throughout American communities; fracking leads to serious environmental and health issues in local communities. The message is clear from the outset: gas companies are poisoning hardworking Americans and must be stopped.
With the framework in place, Fox quickly delves into the meat of the picture, and this is where things start to get really interesting. Travelling around the country, Fox interviews and thoroughly documenting the effects that fracking is having on communities, and everywhere, the story is virtually the same. The land is dead; the groundwater is polluted. People are sick; animals are dying. And the companies responsible are untouchable.
GasLand is as draining as it is captivating. One sees outrages in the world all the time, but the systematic nature of this particular crime is all the more infuriating. The victims, surprisingly, are almost resigned to their fates; ordinary people perfectly aware they have neither the resources to fight what is happening and despite their anger seem to have no faith that any authority – whether the government, the courts, or the media – can really address the situation.
There is a danger with agenda documentaries that they become propaganda pieces, and aim to have the audience come to a predetermined emotional position by the end of the movie. It’s a technique that’s been used – often poorly – on all sides of the political spectrum, and is patently transparent. Other documentaries, while still strong on agenda, are nevertheless making a point that is in the best interest of the public. GasLand, thankfully, falls into the latter category, backing up its agenda with a calm and comprehensive case of evidence that impassions, not bullies, the audience into action. In fact, Fox’s film has already had a significant impact: during the recent US elections, fracking became an important political issue in the Governor race for New York, where the state’s water supply is potentially being threatened by the expansion of natural gas exploration in and around the state. Currently, the newly elected New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has sworn to investigate the issue. It might not be an instant solution to the issue of fracking, but it’s a solid start.