5-Word 365 #112 – GasLand

I received a tip from a good friend of mine the other day that I should watch this movie for Documentary Saturday. She pointed me in the direction of Food, Inc. a few weeks ago as well which I really enjoyed (also, she’s pretty so I basically just do what she tells me).


Frack you, Dick Cheney. Motherfracker.

Banjo-playing freak Josh Fox is prompted by an offer made on his own land to travel the United States seeing first-hand the effects on the environment caused by drilling for natural gas. Flaming taps, balding cats and banjos ensue.

In 2008 Josh Fox received a letter in the post from a natural gas drilling company offering to lease his family’s land in the Catskill Mountains in Pennsylvania, with a signing bonus of almost $100,000. How many of you would have taken the money and run? Since Josh is a second-generation hippy, he decided to find out what the consequences would be on the place he has called home since birth. This led to a journey of discovery as he met and interviewed ordinary people all over the US who were living near these drill-heads and who told their stories of sickness, death and water that literally burns. I saw an episode of CSI last year – back when I actually had the time to watch television – where an old man whose wife had died of cancer caused by polluted drinking water ended up killing himself by tossing a cigarette into his well, which blew up in rather dramatic fashion*. As it turns out, that’s not entirely fictional.

Do you ever think that some warning signs just aren’t that necessary?

The focus of this Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary is on a specific method of extracting the gas called hydraulic fracturing – or, yes, you’ve guessed it – ‘fracking’. This involves drilling a relatively small hole up to 20,000 ft deep, then injecting down a pressurised ‘fracking fluid’, the force of which creates cracks in the rock, which releases the gas pockets within. If the fluid was just water, then most people probably wouldn’t have much a problem with the process, other than the unsightliness of it. The issues come from all the chemicals that are mixed with the water; everything from biocides and friction reducers to hydrochloric acid and strontium 85 (used as a tracer due to its gamma-emitting properties)! This liquid is not only obscenely toxic, but use of it has been excluded from regulation under America’s Clean Water Act after lobbying by the mining companies such as Halliburton – who invented the process back in the forties – when the bill was being considered in 2005. If all of the fluid came back up again then it would just be a matter of storage and disposal, but the major flaw in the process is fact that only about half is recovered. The rest just stays down there, seeping through the rocks. I’m going to stop there, since this is in danger of becoming a political polemic. Would you like to know more? There’s a ton of stuff about fracking on the GasLand site and elsewhere on t’interwebz.

As for the movie, I really enjoyed it. Fox is of the Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock breed of documentarian, inasmuch as he is a major presence within the film. A big chunk of the opening act is even a mini-autobiography. Luckily, he’s an endearing host and a good interviewer; he has an instantly likeable quality which helps him get his point across without seeming antagonistic. He has a very laconic delivery in his narration as well, to the point where I was half expecting to hear him taking a bong hit between sentences. Fox made a shrewd choice in focussing the film on the small communities and individuals who have been hit by this issue instead of just looking at the big picture. It’s so much easier for me to relate to a woman whose cats and horses are losing their hair because of a tainted water supply, or an old cowboy with “the most comfortable couch in North America” and a kitchen tap that will catch fire if he puts a lighter under it, as opposed to a semi-anonymous town on the other side of an ocean.

If you got rid of the weird guy standing in the middle of the river, this would be a really nice place to live. BYO banjo.

From a technical standpoint, the movie varies in quality. Josh Fox began filming as a one-man crew and it shows in places. As production progressed, he recruited some help (and obviously got hold of a better camera or two) but there are a few sequences that resemble amateur home movies, with all the jerkiness and bad sound that implies. I really liked the music though. The score is almost exclusively bluegrass banjo, some of it performed on-screen by the multi-talented director/writer/cameraman/producer/narrator himself. As if he didn’t have enough to do already.

This is an important story that is being told here. You should watch it, particularly if you already have an interest in environmental conservation or alternative energy issues. It is something that Josh Fox is obviously passionate about. Just a couple of months ago in fact, he was arrested while trying to film a Congressional sub-committee hearing on the process of fracking. What do you care that much about?

*Katee Sackhoff was in that episode, and spent a lot of time talking about fracking. It made me all nostalgic for the good ship Galactica. Actually, now that I think about it, I’m starting to wonder if the episode might have been specifically inspired by this film.


  1. fernandorafael · April 21, 2012

    Great review, man! That fire faucet is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen.

    • Ryan McNeely · April 22, 2012

      Thanks Fernando. It really is the money shot of the whole movie.

Go ahead, punk. Make my day.

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