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Gasland (2010)

February 22, 2011

written by: Josh Fox
produced by: Trish Adlesic, Molly Gandour, Josh Fox, & David Roma
directed by: Josh Fox
rated PG (for mild themes and coarse language)
117 min.
U.S. release date: September 5, 2010
DVD & Bluray release date: December 14, 2010
Each year, we are bludgeoned with documentaries that tell and retell us the following: food isn’t safe, the environment is damaged, our educational system is a failure, war continues, and nuclear weapons are still an ever-present threat. While these are valid subjects and such docs need to be seen, a handful of them on the same subject (granted they are often different angles) can often be exhausting and tedious, causing me to lose interest. If it wasn’t for Josh Fox’s “Gasland” being nominated for an Oscar and my goal to catch as many nominees as possible, I probably would’ve skipped past this altogether. Although the film is sort of slow and meandering, once you see what important and powerful information (albeit depressing and frustrating) it contains, it’s hard to complain. 

There have been based-on-a-true-story movies about water contamination in the past, “A Civil Action” and “Erin Brokovich” come to mind, but the how and why of it all often varied. This doc informs us that there are areas in the U.S. where natural gas drilling is directly responsible for contaminating water, resulting in extremely hazardous effects on both the environment and her guests: humans.
Back in May 2008, Fox received a letter from a natural gas company pertaining to land in Manville, Pennsylvannia that his family has owned for some time. They offered him $100, 000 to lease out his property for the purpose of gas drilling. He refused and then set out to investigate why his land was so important to the gas industry, where else drilling is being done, and the effects it had on the people who lived near such activity. He learned quite a bit and so do we. Like how the process of extracting gas from the earth is called “fracking” (no irony lost on BSG fans), short for hydraulic fracturing….which literally means that a fracturing liquid is pumped deep underground into layers of rock. This causes the formation to break under pressure and leak natural gas. But gas has a way of traveling and it just so happens that it finds it’s way into lakes, streams, and the wells that many farming communities and small towns rely on for their water source.
So, many American families in rural areas then have to deal with compustible tap water. This is shown to Fox in a demonstration by one such homeowner in Dimrock, Pennsylvannia who runs his kitchen sink water and lights a match, which in turn produces a lively flame. That’s all real. No special effects, no CGI. This is really happening. All because the gas company is digging near the source of his water supply.

As the calm and laid-back narrator and tour guide, Fox is just as flabbergasted as you and I are about all this. How can this be happening? Through extensive research, he points out how there are companies who manage to evade environmental regulations (well, actually hydraulic fracturing was determined to be exempt from the rules established by the Safe Drinking Water Act in Dick Cheney’s Energy Policy Act of 2005), and naturally how dangerous it is. It doesn’t ever feel like Fox is some kind of crusader that has been working toward this for years, but moreso just a guy who wants to get to the bottom of it all and has the means to do so.
He takes to the road, embarking on a cross-country trek from Dimrock that follows the scent of naturally gas. Along the course of his investigation, Fox talks to a variety of people involved in both sides of the situation. There’s the EPA whistleblower who explains what he’s seen, the activist doctor who can’t stand hearing all the excuses and bureaucracy, and then he meets with the secretary of the Pennsylvania EPA, John Hanger who comes across concerned yet admits to compromise. There is even a point when Fox sits in on subcommittee hearing in Washington on fracking, where gas industry big wigs swear up and down to the safety of their practice and go off on how the media blows all the reports out of proportion. All of these encounters are unfortunately not much of a surprise to any viewer who has seen documentation of this kind in other mediums.  
From various stops in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah, to the big oil lands of Texas, and down to Arkansas, Fox exposes the “gaslands” while wearing a gas mask and playing a banjo. There’s a few select moments of added levity, but for the most part, Fox really doesn’t have to say much. He allows the people to enlighten the audience on how illness have developed from exposure to nearby drilling, the thick chemicals that clog their air, and their tainted water supply. Fox gives us so many situations and examples, that when it comes to how the official response being no valid relation between the drilling and the contamination…it’s just ludicrous.
“Gasland” premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival where it was an official selection, then made its way to HBO in the summer, and finally saw a limited theatrical release last fall. Still, not many people knew about it until it received its Oscar nomination. Hopefully, that can be a good thing in that it can build more awareness for what’s being done for this crisis. Typically, reactions to this film have spawned claims of factual inaccuracies, primarily from agencies in D.C. Granted, all documentaries have their slant, but it’s hard not to commend Fox’s determination to get as much information as possible as he raises awareness on a topic that should be a sobering eye-opener.
Fox injects his slow-burn reveals with a variety of visual kicks along with archival footage of political figures and protest musicians. His approach may have qualified the film as Oscar-worthy, but I can think of a handful of other docs from the same year that showcased hot button topics as well. While it’s definitely worth catching up with, it’s hard to see how it became a nominee.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 27, 2011 1:19 am

    Just watched this tonight after avoiding it for 2 months while the Netflix disc sat right there next to my DVD player. Before that I’ve been moving it further down my queue since February! The only reason I finally got it in the mail was because Nextflix was out of the two movies in in my queue in front of it. Tonight I just felt like I might be in the right frame of mind to watch it.

    I was, and it was GREAT. A must see for every American. Sad, yes, but first rate filmmaking and made with real heart. Disturbing, but in a way that makes one feel brave, because it’s good to face the truth instead of turning a blind eye.

    I do think it’s worthy of the Oscar nomination. This is a BIG issue that isn’t getting the press it deserves, and the film felt fresh.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      September 27, 2011 9:20 am

      For the issue alone….yes, it deserves it’s nomination, but if I remember right, it did lull me to sleep, requiring repeated viewings. Still, I appreciate and respect Fox’s approach and style (it just didn’t smack me of an Oscar doc). There are so many docs each year now, that (in my mind) in order for them to be considered as Oscar-worthy, they really have to rise above the rest in every way.

  2. September 27, 2011 1:20 pm

    It worked for me, I was engrossed. But, I’m sure it didn’t hurt that I was in the absolute most perfect frame of mind for a movie like this. I mean, the other Netflix film sitting there to watch was “Blue Valentine”, and I chose “Gasland”, after avoiding it like the plague for many many months. Still, for anyone else reading, it’s a great doc IMHO, with the right balance between showing the filmmakers personal journey with this subject against a larger picture of “fracking”.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      September 27, 2011 2:09 pm

      “for anyone else reading”….no, no one else is reading this, but in the rare case that they are….I would encourage anyone to catch this (hence my *** rating) and learn about “fracking” which has nothing to do with the “fraking!” you will find below:

  3. September 27, 2011 2:22 pm

    Very nice. No one else is reading right NOW, but a couple years from now when your readership has grown 2000 fold and this IS the go to site for someone to figure out whether to watch “Gasland” or not, I want them to watch it. 🙂

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      September 27, 2011 3:17 pm

      next stop….”Wasteland”

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