Bigger, Flamier, More People-Powered: Gasland II
He's back! Everybody's favorite fracktivist documentarian Josh Fox has done a sequel to his breakout documentary Gasland, which basically invented the genre of fracktivist documentary. It's a tough act to follow, in that I believe Gasland is the biggest cause of people joining the fracking movement, second only to having a your own water tap catch fire, and I was dying to see it. Though HBO discouraged public screenings, I was able to cadge an invite to a nearby roof deck to watch it with the splendid backdrop of Center City Philadelphia.
How did Josh Fox do? Well, the film avoids overtly referencing its predecessor. There's no "Previously on Gasland" and the film is much more a re-imagining of the previous film with a bigger budget, a bigger audience, and a freer form structure. In fact, the biggest surprise of the film is how beautiful it is. Fox owns both a banjo and clunky glasses, and he definitely owns them. But he tackles head-on the problem of an artful film: How do you avoid making the thing you are shown look too-good simply by putting it on screen? Fox solves this with a kind of terrible beauty, many shots from high in the air of fracked landscapes. There is also a moment earlier in the film where he swoops lower than the law allows to capture the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, catching a million slicks floating on the waters. It's like Beasts of the Southern Wild, only all too real and terrible.
I was tweeting feverishly during the screening, but I do believe the film matched my pace, indeed it seems made to live tweet. Josh Fox tweets prolifically at @gaslandmovie himself, and the film is made up of many individual stories from many regions, layered over each other like the streams that feed Fox's beloved Delaware River. In one of those tweets, I quoted the monologist Spalding Gray, a man whose plays consist of him sitting at a table and talking, and Josh Fox responded that he was indeed an influence. You can see, despite the visual grandeur, that this is a fundamentally chatty film, and in parts a hilarious one. Fox gets a lot of mileage from both his titles and his asides, we are treated to the "Scary Owl and a mysterious Blue Hand" from pro-fracking website, as well as the "Nicest natural gas drilling pad in America," the opulent home of Steve Lipsky now ruined by fracking.
The great language in the film isn't just Fox's own. He has an ear for others' speech both the plain spoken, sometimes profane, language of the people devastated by fracking ("It ain't no mansion, but it's home to us. We're happy here, there ain't much we need" [except water that DOESN'T taste like turpentine]; And also the harsh juxtaposition with the doublespeak of the fracking industry, including, I kid you not, "Terry The Frackosaurus" – a now extinct fracking industry spokesperson influenced by Barney the dinosaur and fracking's roots as a 'fossil' fuel. The film is at its most terrifying when it details the "psyops" techniques used on citizens to prepare them for fracking, echoing the long standing fear that military force could be used around the world to grab natural resources. In fact, the point is explicitly made is that fracking has made many "middle class people with college degrees" experience oppression previously familiar only to citizens of the developing world.
And that, of course, is the strength of the fracking movement: it's ability to reach people that more abstract environmental issues do not. It's hard to beat flaming water (and much of it goes up in flames in Gasland II) for its sheer visceral immediacy. While the film feels at times like a whirlwind trip to one of the anti-fracking conferences I've attended, (many of its subjects participated in March's Stop the Frack Attack in Dallas) it will reach a national audience. But despite the shrill claims of the gas industry, it's not a piece of propaganda. The catalog of defeats at the end of the film, of sympathetic government officials forced off the job, legislation delayed and poisoned citizens' lawsuits dismissed, are sobering to say the least. The triumphal emergence of the New Yorkers Against Fracking, a startling shock of sign-wielding urban crowd after so many lonely small towns, doesn't quite dispel the sadness.
In his post premiere conference call, Josh Fox freely admitted to not being an organizer. It is up to us who live and work on the front lines of this fight to figure out how we can enlist the help of affected neighbors, help the movement grow nationally, and make sure that Gasland II and other inspiring stories of the fight against fracking reach a wider and wider audience.
Here's hoping with love that there is no need for a Gasland III, unless it's to film our victory party.