Film review: Fracknation

Full disclosure: I’m a friend of filmmakers Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, producers of the new documentary Fracknation.  I’ve been looking forward to this effort for some time, interviewing Phelim and Ann during the last couple of years as they prepared for and produced the film. Outside of friendship — and Ann and Phelim are a truly lovely and delightful couple — I wanted to get the other side of the fracking dispute represented in the cinematic arena, especially after Gasland and now Promised Land.

And make no mistake — this documentary succeeds in rebutting Josh Fox, the producer/director/writer of the documentary Gasland that touched off much of the anti-fracking activism. Phelim steps through a number of Fox’s claims inside and outside of the documentary, systematically undermining each of them. He includes a clip of his in-person challenge to Fox, which Fox tried to suppress, and another with a state official that cozied up to Fox — whose lawyer hilariously demands the film of the interview immediately afterward. (It’s amazing how little some lawyers know about the First Amendment.)  Instead of speaking with Hollywood actors and the UAE (which provided some funding for Promised Land), Phelim speaks with the farmers in the supposedly-blighted areas of Pennsylvania, New York, and the Delaware Rivery Valley, as well as experts on fracking, water science, and environmental agencies.

The best part, however, comes near the end.  One couple in the area have been particularly effective activists, giving interviews, appearing in Gasland, and protesting about their contaminated water supply.  The EPA even came to Dimock based on their complaints to test the water supply specifically in their wells, which they claimed were contaminated by the fracking that had taken place in the region.  When Phelim asks to interview them for Fracknation and to get the results of the test, they get belligerent enough to call a policeman (who turns out to be one of the most reasonable of all the people in the film) as well as threaten to pull a gun on Phelim. Only through a FOIA request does Phelim find out why — the EPA didn’t find anything wrong with the water, and they were smart enough to tape the meeting in which they told the couple the results.

Fracknation delivers a powerful debunking of the scare campaign against fracking and domestic natural-gas production.  But don’t take my word for it — here’s Variety on the impact of Fracknation:

Those nursing the suspicion that Hollywood politics are awash in knee-jerk liberalism may well have their cynicism validated by “FrackNation,” a counterargument to the outcry over the natural-gas retrieval process known as “fracking” recently explored in Gus Van Sant’s feature “Promised Land.” But the more thoughtful and politics-oriented auds targeted by this well-reasoned film from helmers Phelim McAleer, Ann McElhinney and Magdalena Segieda will find plenty to chew over, including the possibility that perhaps all is not as simple as it seems in the world of nonrenewable energy.

Irish journalist McAleer narrates and serves as host to this briskly paced, low-budget and mischievous pic, presented as a rebuttal to Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated “Gasland,” a docu that has been instrumental in building political resistance to a process seen by different factions as a godsend and an antidote to Big Oil. Fox is clearly depicted as the villain in “FrackNation,” from a “Gasland” post-screening Q&A where Fox refuses to answer McAleer’s simple questions, to a scene at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum where Fox literally flees the camera.

McAleer makes a good case against Fox’s movie. From the farmers of the Delaware River Basin, for whom fracking hysteria has meant a loss of crucial income, to experts like James Delingpole, who somehow makes a fairly reasoned case that the anti-fracking people are the tools of Russian President Vladimir Putin (for whom the natural-gas market provides political leverage), most of the voices entertained here make a good deal of sense. But the filmmakers might have done well to address the animosity so many Americans feel toward the energy business in general.

And what did the New York Times think?  You’d probably guess … and you’d be wrong:

Narrated by Mr. McAleer, whose previous documentaries have also argued against environmental concerns, “FrackNation” is no tossed-off, pro-business pamphlet. Methodically researched and assembled (and financed by thousands of small donations from an online campaign), the film picks at Mr. Fox’s assertions and omissions with dogged persistence. Much of what it reveals is provocative, like a confrontation with Mr. Fox about the presence of methane in the water supply decades before fracking began.

What’s clear is that Mr. McAleer knows his way around the Freedom of Information Act and has done his legwork. Besides talking to carefully selected scientists and water experts, he visits pro-fracking residents of Dimock Township, Pa., who are annoyed that their community is being characterized as a toxic wasteland. And he’s not above taking a sentimental detour to Poland to commiserate with a pensioner who can’t pay her energy bills, or reveling in the odd gotcha moment, like accusing a public official of “inappropriate ties” to Mr. Fox.

More than anything, “FrackNation” underscores the sheer complexity of a process that offers a financial lifeline to struggling farmers. Whether it also brings death to their water supply is something we won’t find out by listening to only half of the debate.

Fracknation will air on Tuesday evening on Mark Cuban’s AXs cable television channel at 9 pm ET. It’s a brilliant effort by Phelim and Ann, and it’s appropriate for all ages. The only violence in the film comes, unsurprisingly, from people who don’t want to have Phelim asking inconvenient questions.