November 16, 2010

It’s not all too often that a film will bring a tear to my eye. Call me a cold-hearted cognitivist (I’ve been called worse) but it is rare that I find cinematic subject matter so emotionally affective as to move me to tears. But one thing that time and again proves for me a faultless trigger is the sincere endeavour of a documentary filmmaker to communicate a heinous crime against humanity, especially when that crime is one that we ourselves inflict upon other human beings and/or our planet.

Josh Fox’s new documentary film Gasland (2010) is one such film whereby the very seed of hope and a genuine effort to incite positive activism hold the power to shake an otherwise often too apathetic core. We all have an ethical responsibility to each other and to our environment. That seems to be a simple enough statement and one that we might all take as a given. But apparently “we” humans are more interested in industry and commerce than health and environment and the result is water that catches on fire and individuals who die slow, painful and unvoiced deaths. Thankfully, filmmaker Josh Fox still holds an optimistic view for our ability to find real, workable solutions, his opening voice-over announcing, “I’m not a pessimist. I’ve always had a great deal of faith in people.” And it is from this admirable perspective that Fox begins his investigative documentary project on the processes, lies and effects of the act of “fracking”.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the process of pumping water and a veritable cocktail of chemicals (known as frack fluid) into the ground to cause a sort of mini explosion that cause the land to crack and fracture, releasing the earth’s natural gases which is, according to some people in positions of authority, a real “sustainable” energy source . But, as we all know, and as one of the aforementioned authoritative folk tells Fox in his film, “There is no such thing as a perfect source of energy.” A clever statement because 1) it’s indisputable and 2) it’s so definitive in and of itself that it almost denies the counter argument which is that just because there is no “perfect” source, doesn’t mean there aren’t some sources which would be preferable to others, or indeed other solutions that might involve humans cutting down on energy use rather than using with wild abandon and hoping the pursuit of something to replace it will just work out somehow.

With so many incredibly negative side effects, it’s difficult to decide what exactly about “fracking” is most troubling; that long-term exposure to the gases and contaminated water can lead to irreversible brain damage; that the people working on extracting the gases don’t know the truth about close-quarter effects; that the corporations involved refuse to divulge the full list of “chemicals” used in the process; that the process leaves behind “produced” water which further contaminates the earth; that the government are involved in ignoring their own clean air and clean water acts and are thus implicated in an almighty cover up; that even if it wasn’t dangerous the civilians who complained about their contaminated water were refused even an investigation; or that no one other than a filmmaker seems to care enough to try to stop it from happening. Is the only solution then to stop focusing on the problems already caused and start thinking about finding a solution that might stop it from continuing/happening elsewhere?

Fox’s film is highly contemplative and has fantastic and admirable intent but ultimately; against global corporations including Shell, Exonn, Mobil, BP, Halliburton (all of whom quite clearly and understandably declined to interview for the film) and governments; what chance does the common man have? There is certainly an element of hope that he/she has some and there are various websites set up for subsequent community action (including ones relating to fracking in Australia too)*. But the one thing that Fox fails to acknowledge in his film is that the whole orchestration of these events comes down to that one dirty word we just can’t escape: capitalism. In a system that controls and effects everything (truly everything) it will never be the case that we get the “best” or even the “less bad” of the supposedly available energy sources. Fox’s film finishes on imagery of wind turbines but with so many positions in authority voting against them for purely aesthetic objections (as is the case in the UK) it’s absolutely clear that the deciding motivators aren’t necessarily the same for farmers as they are councillors.

Moving, infuriating, incredulous: Gasland is a film of much merit. Unfortunately it will likely preach (as so many of these films do) to the already converted or, worse still, long time apathetic anti-activists who cogitate and leave it at that. Further to this, the quality of filmmaking, due largely to and absolutely forgivable for its one-man low-budget constrictions, is really rather poor. But these points notwithstanding I’d still hope everyone go out and see the film, because the cause and the fight are important.

With the extraction of an energy source contaminating arguably the most important resource on our planet (water) perhaps the most significant question Fox asks is at the very end of his film, “How much water could you replace?” If we’re lucky, those proverbial “powers that be” will find a way to convert the very tears of humanity into an energy source – because that’s probably the most “sustainable” source we’ve got.

Gasland is released in Australian cinemas Thursday November 18 through Palace Films.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

* Western Downs Alliance / The Basin Sustainability Alliance / The Hunter Valley Protection Alliance


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