There's no doubt that we are living through a Golden Age for the documentary film, and for investigative, awareness raising film-makers in particular. Ever since arch prankster/careerist Michael Moore took the Palme D'or at Cannes for Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) an explosion of citizen journalists, activists, campaigners and agitators have graced the big screen. The exposes of Governmental subterfuge, industrial farming, animal cruelty, war and oppression have come thick and fast as production,equipment and editing costs have fallen. Add to that the rise of social networking, alternative platforms for the spreading of information and an air of Global disaffection and the time is ripe for the documentary film.
The latest eye catching expose comes in the form of Josh Fox's Gasland, which utilises all of the recognisable traits of both the traditional and contemporary documentary forms - to-camera monologues, voiceover narration, onscreen titles and graphics, archived and present day footage,interviews and an intervensionist, subjective director - to shed light on the practice of Hydrolic fracturing, or 'Fracking'. The process, essential in releasing the enormous quantities of natural gas hidden underneath vast stretches of the US, involves wells being drilled thousands of feet deep into the earth before water, sand and chemicals are injected into the shale to crack it open and let the gas escape, a huge profit making concern for powerful energy companies. After being offered around $100,000 to allow a company acces to his land to drill a hole, the concerned Fox investigated the process and discovered a mind boggling array of deceit, potentially fatal incidents, extreme health risks and environmental damage. By finding households and sometimes whole towns with poisoned water supplies, which are in no doubt related to the fracking process despite the protests of the energy companies and their lobbying groups, Fox accidentally stumbled on a shocking example of the 'little guy' suffering at the hands of big business. Needless to say he kissed the money goodbye.
The amiable, thoughtful and wryly humourous Fox guides us through an increasingly murky moral and ethical minefield in a film that bares all the hallmarks of a conspiracy thriller that reaches the highest echelons of American officialdom. The familiar and depressingly predictable figure of Dick Cheney and his assorted cronies raise their heads amidst a dizzying melange of statistics, counter-arguments, corporate and political negligence and rapacious profiteering that is foolish at best and downright criminal at worst. The almost total refusal of any of the energy companies and politicians to grant Fox an interview for the film simply adds to the weight of the damning evidence laid out. Any potential dis-engagement for audiences outside of the US is brought into stark relief by the revelation that Europe is the next potentially huge market for natural gas extraction before other parts of the world are drawn into this hugely controversial practice. Gasland and many other similar documentaries run the risk of preaching to the converted ecologially aware and anti-capitalist masses, but that in no way diminishes the need for these films to be circulated, debated and acted upon. Recommended.