Much to his relief, this is not a documentary about Judge Adam Arseneau's bathroom.
Can you light your water on fire?
Winner of the Special Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, Gasland feels more a travelogue from an aspiring filmmaker than a polished documentary, but this unique approach emboldens the film. Personal, intimate, and forthright, light on facts and heavy on emotional connection, the end result is more satisfying than most large-scale productions can ever hope to be.
Facts of the Case
In 2009, Delaware River Basin native and filmmaker Josh Fox was presented with an interesting proposal: lease his family land to a natural gas company for a new method of drilling called hydraulic fracturing, and get a check for $100,000. The money was very good. Fox wouldn't have to do anything but sit back and let the money roll in.
Curious about the process, Fox embarks on an exploration of other families in the Northeast, where natural gas drilling was already in progress, to observe firsthand any potential downsides. He found an endless string of frustrated and sick Americans whose land has become toxic, whose drinking water has become flammable and whose hair is falling out—and whose complains are going ignored by the natural gas corporations and the American government. Gasland travels across twenty-four states, documenting the pitfalls and perils of the largest domestic natural gas drilling boom in American history.
In the most kind and flattering sense of the word, Gasland feels like a film created by a single person on a home video camera. Written and directed by Josh Fox, banjo player extraordinaire and potential natural gas drilling land leaser, the film smacks of honesty and forthrightness. There is no political agenda, no personal vendetta. We see footage of Josh making phone calls, leaving voice messages for various corporate officials, government officials, and scientists, lounging around in his living room. We see Josh in his car, driving from state to state, from house to house, talking to people affected by natural gas drilling. This is a personal project that has grown into a world-class documentary, naturally and organically, with a minimum of outside interference.
Hydraulic fracturing (which the film calls "fracking," much to the amusement of all us Battlestar Galactica fans) is a relatively new method of drilling for natural gas, one that is largely understudied and poorly regulated. To make a long story short, the process is extremely efficient in getting natural gas out of the ground…too efficient. Land owners who agree to the drilling soon find all manner of unnatural side effects, like their well water becoming contaminated with natural gas. The film is perhaps best known for its arresting footage of average Americans turning on their kitchen faucet and lighting the water on fire with a cigarette lighter. Other land owners find their livestock and animals getting sick and losing hair. Some families get sick. Attempts to find compensation from the natural gas companies gets slogged down in bureaucracy and red tape. The corporations were provided exemption from water-related EPA laws (you can thank Vice President Cheney for that one) so there is little federal recourse for affected families.
At the risk of spoiling the ending, Mr. Fox opts not to subject his land to natural gas drilling. For the thousands of other families across America whose land is on the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation stretching across New York, Pennsylvania and huge stretches of the Northeast, it is already too late. In this tough economic climate, it is hard to turn down a large check for the leasing of land—especially when the corporation assures a safe, clean, and unobtrusive experience. The end result of fracking documented in Gasland is in stark contrast to the sales pitch: toxic pools of chemicals festering on the ground, contaminated groundwater, and desolate industrial structures raised in Mad Max fashion, forever tainting the land they are installed upon. The footage is despondent and grim; the interviewees exhausted and broken. A cash payout turns into an endless nightmare from which there is little recourse.
What I like about Gasland is the naiveté in which it approaches its subject. The filmmaker has a true personal stake in the issue; he has a personal connection to his land, his family, an intimacy lacking in other documentary films. Josh Fox is not a scientist or an expert; he simply travels from farm to farm, from family to family with a camera in tow, and records what he sees, his own observations narrated atop. This is a film that comes to no conclusion other than the personal choice of the filmmaker to keep his land free from drilling. Gasland needs not preach or lecture or pontificate—it just keeps the camera rolling and lets audiences come to their own conclusion. The observed impact to the New York Watershed is far-reaching, the corporate thuggery disheartening. There is calmness at work here rarely seen in modern documentary filmmaking, a maturity and sophistication of tone. Call it the ultimate antithesis to a Michael Moore film.
The epitome of a low-budget hand-camera documentary, do not expect much in terms of a technical presentation from Gasland. Detail is soft, grain is high, and the jerkiness of the hand camera gets irritating. To compensate, aggressive filtering and color manipulation give the production a stylized and saturated look, like watching the hazy dream sequence of a post-apocalyptic horror film. A stereo 2.0 track gets the job done well enough, with some peculiar balance issues here and there. The narration is extremely punchy and encompassing, like Josh Fox hugging a microphone in a broom closet. In contrast, on-location dialogue and environmental sounds are tinny and difficult to articulate at times.
We get 50 minutes of extended and deleted sequences on the DVD, but no other extras. A lot of this material is repetitive, but its inclusion is worth a look for those looking for more context.
A uniquely intimate documentary, Gasland is as compelling and gripping as a mystery novel, building slowly towards a crescendo of conspiracy and contamination.
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