GasLand, 104 mins, rated PG, opens in cinemas 18 Nov 2010.


(This is my review as  published in the November 2010 issue of The New South Wales Law Society Journal)

GasLand is a documentary… but it’s also a horror story. It’s the latest in a long line of socially- or politically-motivated documentaries that have been released as features in our cinemas, such as Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), An Inconvenient Truth (Guggenheim, 2006), Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Gibney, 2005, LSJ review, Oct 2005), and the food-oriented Super Size Me (Spurlock, 2004) and Food, Inc (Kenner, 2008).

GasLand is about exploring for natural gas. That may not put it right at the top of your “must-see” list, but read on. This is a very personal film, yet its subject may have ramifications for all of us. It investigates the startling side-effects of gas exploration and mining.

The director, writer and narrator is Josh Fox, making only his second feature film. His story begins when he receives a letter from a gas company, requesting permission to explore his family’s property in the beautiful Delaware River Basin of New York State. The company is offering almost $100,000 in return for a lease. He’s tempted to sign on the dotted line, as he discovers many in the area have done before him. But something tells him to make enquiries first. What he finds out will shock and alarm you.

Technically, the film itself is not very good. Don’t be deceived by the gorgeous publicity photograph of a pristine stream. Most of the film was shot by Josh and his cinematographer on Fox’s camcorder. Much of the film is very grainy, and, looks to have been “blown up” for showing in the cinema. Worse, a lot of the film is shot and edited in a very jumpy style: this “wobbly-cam” style is all too common today.

Fox begins his film with a pastiche of footage taken from episodes better explained later in the film. He then complicates things by trying to explain the process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, a process by which water mixed with various chemicals is forced under great pressure into the area that the gas company wants to drill, to dislodge and dissolve rock, mud and sludge. Then he interrupts himself: “Maybe I’ll start at the beginning. This is Dick Cheney”. And then: “No, maybe I’ll start at a different beginning. This is my house”. Finally, we have a coherent starting point.

As the film settles down, Fox shows his journey through those of the United States that have been mined for their vast natural gas deposits. What he finds are horrifying instances of contaminated water, sick people, dying animals, strange explosions, and even flaming tap water.

He reveals the legislation that allows all this. The most important law seems to be the Bush Administration’s Energy Policy Act of 2005 (promoted by Dick Cheney), which exempted “hydro-fracking” from the Safe Drinking Water Act. The oil and gas industry has also successfully lobbied for legislation that exempts them from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and many other environmental protection laws and regulations. Legislation in Congress that would repeal some of these exemptions is stuck at the Committee stage at the moment.

Fox tries to interview representatives of the gas mining industry. Some decline the interview. The others are given short shrift, or edited so as to demonise them. And the film ends somewhat abruptly, with Fox telling us, “This story’s not going away any time soon. It might stretch from my backyard into yours”. So it may. According to ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing program on 20 June 2010, miners are already fracking away in Australia, in the Darling Downs region. According to The Sydney Morning Herald (page 1 on 24 September 2010), there are plans to use “fracking” to mine for gas next to Warragamba Dam, which holds much of Sydney’s drinking water, and miners are currently “fracking” at Camden, south of Sydney. Both the Greens and the Total Environment Centre have called for a moratorium on coal seam gas mining.

Yet I’m ambivalent about this film. On the one hand the story it tells is alarming, and if true, very important. On the other hand, as a film I found it technically wanting, sometimes annoying, and often hard to watch. I’m not confident that we have been told the whole story, and yet seeing one side of the argument at least makes us aware of the issue, and lets us ask questions. The only way to have an opinion is to take the plunge and see the film. Considering the film’s deficiencies, I’m tempted to suggest you could wait until it comes to the small screen. But as “fracking” is looming large in Australia right now, you might prefer to see GasLand right away.