Doc Talk is a biweekly column devoted to documentary cinema, typically featuring an essay concentrated on a currently relevant topic for discussion followed by critic picks for new theatrical and home video releases. This week we look at the new film FrackNation.
At the end of the surprisingly engaging new documentary FrackNation, a title card states that “this is their film,” meaning the “thousands of ordinary people from 26 countries” who contributed to its budget through the crowd-funding website Kickstarter. This isn’t to imply that it’s a collaborative work in a directorial sense (the actual directors are a trio: Phelim McAleer, Ann McElhinney and Magdalena Segieda), but there is an assertion of cooperative purpose and production. Those thousands, all credited as executive producers, helped to finance a movie that they believed in, sight unseen, because of a cause they agreed with, to the collective tune of more than $200,000 -- when the crowd-funding campaign goal was only $150,000 -- making it one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns for a documentary ever.
What they’ve bought is a work of propaganda that directly and overstatedly responds to another work of propaganda, Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland, which warns against the process of hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) used for natural gas extraction. Through the media coverage, Academy recognition and HBO’s airing of that film, it became a phenomenal influence on an issue that many of us weren’t even conscious of until Fox made it his raison d’etre (he continues to lead activists and document the cause with short films and an upcoming sequel). In fact, Gasland has had such a major effect on the awareness and business of fracking that the directors of FrackNation have implied that their side is now that of the underdog.
That claim may seem ludicrous given that their side is also that of the natural gas industry and lobby, which has already responded to Fox’s film with tons of money spent on PR as well as its own documentary, TruthLand: Dispatches from the Real Gasland (produced through a project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America). Unlike that short film, though, FrackNation has avowedly been made independently of those who’d profit from fracking, as the filmmakers stressed on their Kickstarter page that they would not accept money from any oil or gas company or its senior executives. Again, on that page they define the people who are paying for this film as “ordinary.”
But those people may include farmers appearing in the documentary, and others like them, “ordinary” folk who are upset with Gasland and its followers for halting the development of fracking sites in their area. Sites that could include wells on their own land, which they’d lease to a natural gas company for hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the most brilliantly manipulative section of FrackNation, the film features a number of these small business farmers crying over the potential of losing land that their ancestors built over a century ago. Fox and his film aren’t just a blow to the big companies, apparently, but his cause is contributing to the bankruptcy of individuals and families and hurting the economy of all the many regions where fracking could be implemented.
And fracking is actually good for the environment, too, according to the film, in the way that it keeps the farmland natural and free of suburban sprawl, which requires more energy to be produced and ruins the beautiful bucolic landscape. This scenery does look great, by the way, as FrackNation is altogether one of the most aesthetically solid independent docs of its kind (aside from a few stealth camera-phone bits), and it should be for what it cost. It’s easier on the eyes than Gasland is, and it’s often craftier, going beyond mere dispute to offer itself as an issue film in its own right on matters of the economy and environment. Yet on the latter front the film does lose footing and focus by spending a long time exploring a conspiracy theory purporting that anti-fracking environmentalism groups in Europe are in the pocket of Vladimir Putin and the Russian oil industry.
Where FrackNation makes its strongest and most interesting case against Gasland, however, is not so much with refute of its claims as with address of its impact and what this says about modern journalism. Regardless of Fox’s accuracy, did the news media too easily accept the arguments of a documentary made by a convincing yet admittedly amateur journalist without doing its own fact checking and research? As we increasingly look to nonfiction feature films to make up for the near extinction of traditional investigative reporting in print and broadcast outlets (including Internet incarnations of both), we mustn’t immediately put all our trust in any documentary filmmakers who come along with a crusade, and that goes for this film’s trio as much as it does Fox.
FrackNation is often critical of how much Gasland depends on theatrics, both in terms of its first-person style, with Fox the most captivating novice investigator in nonfiction cinema since Michael Moore in Roger and Me, and with regards to its famous footage of running tap water being lit on fire. But McAleer, who guides us through his investigation on-screen and in voiceover narration as if he were the sole, first-person-style director of FrackNation, dominates the foreground of this film in a theatrical manner as well. Even without his paunchy physique, McAleer could truly be the most reciprocal right-wing version of Moore yet, eclipsing recent candidates like Ami Horowitz (U.N. Me) and Dinesh D’Souza (2016: Obama’s America). The last 20 minutes of FrackNation involves two sequences that are so impishly Moore-ish in their technique (though we should probably give credit to Nick Broomfield, too, since McAleer is from the U.K.), including a climactic ambush on Fox at a public event, that it feels like it’s an actual backwards Moore film that has escaped from bizarro world.
But FrackNation also employs methods of propaganda that are more traditional than any we see from Moore. These include the archaically silly statement in its conclusion about how we need fracking so it will provide energy to a kid who’ll grow up to be the next Steve Jobs or James Cameron (the latter is particularly ironic since McAleer and McElhinney made a short doc specifically attacking Cameron a few years back called James Cameron -- Hypocrite). This sort of rhetoric is off base for a film where the stated goal is to deliver the truth about fracking. It’s one thing for a journalist to seek to debunk claims made by Gasland, but it’s another thing entirely to turn that into a piece fully promoting the thing being investigated -- in this case fracking.
It’s rhetoric that thousands of people want, though, if we trust that all “executive producer” donors are (or will be) satisfied with the product they’ve supported. A product that has an odd quality of being self-affirming propaganda, made by the people for the people, who buy a ticket for a destination they’re already at. While it’s true that this isn’t the first time propaganda has been paid for by the people, unlike the tax-funded wartime documentaries of 70 years ago, it is a very new breed. It’s socially supported, rather than nationalistically. And this very well could be the future for conservative-cause documentaries from filmmakers who believe both the mainstream and public means for the production and financing and distribution of nonfiction works are too liberal-leaning.
Between the recent box office success of 2016: Obama’s America and the crowd-funding achievement of FrackNation, it’s clear that right-wing films are in demand and lucrative. And it’s important to realize that, especially with adequate budgets and talents, they’re not necessarily any different from those promoting left-wing causes. That especially goes for their lack of total dependability with objective truths and concrete facts. We could eventually do with some conservative docs that aren’t so reactionary, particularly as counterpoints to other films (we tend to see films like the multiple titles responding to Fahrenheit 9/11 and An Inconvenient Truth -- the latter pile of which includes McAleer and McElhinney’s own Not Evil Just Wrong). But it would also be fascinating to see Gasland 2 directly respond to FrackNation and then a FrackNation sequel volley the debate back, and so forth.
Of course, it would be even better if we could have non-entertainment-based media providing more trustworthy discourse for those of us who would like to know what to believe, as well as for those who are buying or buying into (literally, now) documentaries like FrackNation and Gasland.