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February 3, 2013
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Films fuel feud over Fracking

A veritable duel between movie makers could make theater audiences among the most knowledgeable people on natural gas exploration and its controversial extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

"FrackNation," by Irish filmmaker Phelim McAleer, his wife, Ann McElhinney, and their partner, Polish film editor Magdalena Segieda, is the newest of five movies about the gas drilling industry. It's one of two pro-industry films, balanced against three that criticize drilling practices.

"FrackNation" takes direct aim at the claims and veracity of a 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary, "Gasland," by Josh Fox.

Both "Gasland," released in 2010, and the 2009 film "Split Estate" by Debra Anderson, are intended to inform audiences about the potential hazards of gas drilling and fracking for those living near to active drilling rigs.

"Split Estate" also looks at the phenomenon that gave the movie its title, a quirk of law in Colorado and some other states under which many landowners do not own the mineral rights beneath the surface of their property. It takes a skeptical view of industry claims that drilling is not hazardous to human health, or that drilling is a boon to the U.S. economy.

More recently, actor Matt Damon's $15 million film, "Promised Land," came out in wide release in January. It is a commercial film project that starts with a pro-industry theme but ends with anti-fracking sentiments.

A fifth film on drilling, "TruthLand," was released in 2012 by the Independent Petroleum Association of America and EnergyInDepth, a pro-industry online organization (energyindepth.org).

Tagged a "mockumentary" by its critics, "TruthLand" takes much the same tone as "FrackNation," aiming sharp criticism at Fox and "Gasland," and presenting a favorable and supportive assessment of the gas drilling industry.

"TruthLand" is not a general-release film, but it can be found at various sites on the Internet.

The main target of "FrackNation," the newest entry to the field, is "Gasland" and its creator, Josh Fox. "FrackNation" also contains footage laying out the clash between pro-fracking and anti-fracking forces, and gives pro-industry commentators a chance to state their case.

"Shale gas is a gift from God," says one "FrackNation" interviewee.

The inspiration to make a movie about the gas industry and fracking came out of a conflict between the two filmmakers, Phelim McAleer told the Post Independent.

"It was really Josh Fox trying to shut me down," said McAleer.

McAleer, 45, a former print journalist, had already made two documentary films with similar themes.

He produced "Not Evil, Just Wrong," in 2008 to challenge some of the information in former Vice President Al Gore's film, "An Inconvenient Truth," about the causes and dangers of global warming.

"Mine Your Own Business," made in 2006, criticized foreign environmentalists campaigning against a large-scale Canadian Mining Co. mining project in Romania. The film reportedly was funded by the company.

McAleer said he was in Chicago in 2011 and attended a screening of "Gasland." He was primed to ask Fox a few pointed questions about the scene in "Gasland" where a man lights his tapwater on fire as it streams out of a faucet.

"It took me only five minutes on the Internet to find that the claim of flammable water was highly questionable," McAleer said. People living in methane-rich terrain have been watching water burn for decades, he said.

"And that was long before fracking got started," McAleer said.

After confronting Fox about the burning-water scenes, McAleer posted some videos on the Internet from the his exchange with Fox, which Fox's lawyers got pulled from YouTube.

"That was censorship," McAleer said. "What was he trying to hide?"

So he embarked on his project, which is focused mainly on drilling controversy in Pennsylvania and on Fox's portrayal of that controversy in "Gasland."

"People need to understand that journalism is taking on the rich and powerful," McAleer said. Al Gore and Greenpeace, which figured in "Mine Your Own Business," represent what he calls "the new establishment" in terms of corporate power, financial clout and political influence.

"Let's treat Big Environment the same way we treat Big Oil and Big Politics," he said.

The movie premiered Jan. 22 on AXS.TV, a cable channel with limited reach in rural areas, timed to coincide with the release of Damon's "Promised Land."

McAleer said he expects to embark on a screening tour soon that will include Colorado.

"I'll show it where there's an interest, where it's happening and people are afraid of it," he said. "We're definitely coming to places in Colorado where fracking is. We definitely want as many people as possible to see the film."

Stressing that he shows both sides of the debate in his film, McAleer said he believes that gas drilling and fracking are beneficial enterprises.

"I think gas is the future fuel of the moment, until they invent something else," he said. "I favor any fuel that's clean, and safe, and cheap. If fracking was proven unsafe, it shouldn't be used."

Calls to Fox for comment about this story were not returned.

The first film made about fracking, "Split Estate," was inspired by a sense of surprise and concern, according to its creator, filmmaker Debra Anderson of Santa Fe, N.M.

She first learned about fracking, she said, in a 2006 article in the magazine, "On Earth," a publication of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The story was about Laura Amos of Garfield County, who developed a rare adrenal tumor after drilling started in her neighborhood.

"It just hit me really hard," said Anderson.

The article, she recalled, included tales about gas drilling on people's land without their permission, as well as illnesses affecting those living next to gas rigs.

"It just seemed like a really hidden story, something I'd never heard much about before," Anderson continued. "It got me curious enough to come up and check it out."

She started hunting for information about the gas boom under way in Colorado, where she grew up, as well as in New Mexico, her adopted state.

Anderson had been making films since the late 1980s, and was without a project at the moment.

"At the time, I was looking for a story, where I could make my own film, which I had not done yet," she explained, noting that she had been working primarily as an editor or a producer on other people's films.

Drilling was a good subject for a film, she said.

"I knew that [film] was going to be the most powerful way of getting that story exposed," she said.

After more than a year in the making, the film was released in 2009. It won an Emmy in 2010 and accolades from politicians, environmental activists and news outlets.

The film has been broadcast at least 10 times on the Discovery Channel's Planet Green, as well as on other television outlets, and has been shown to activists around the world, from South Africa to Sweden, Australia and Russia, in places where gas drilling either has begun or is planned.

McAleer, who lives in California, financed "FrackNation" using an online money-raising website, Kickstarter.

He said he raised more than $212,000 in small donations from more than 3,300 people, much of it "coming in contributions of $5, $10, $20."

Stressing that he did not accept industry funding, McAleer said, "We even sent back about $30,000" that he said came from contributors linked to the natural gas industry.

"I think that we're the first film company in the history of the West that's sent money back to investors," he remarked with a mixture of pride and humor.

He said it cost about $150,000 to make the movie.

"The rest went for marketing, advertising, that kind of thing," he said.

In making "Split Estate," Anderson received financial help from a dozen different foundations, including the Aspen Community Foundation and the Environment Foundation of the Aspen Skiing Co., both in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Anderson said the film cost approximately $200,000 in cash for production and release costs, and about the same amount in donated labor and production assistance.

Early in the process of making the film, Anderson began laying the groundwork for getting her documentary onto television, such as PBS and the Discovery network, and bring it to the attention of a wider audience.

"It just kept, sort of, expanding," Anderson said. She believes movies and TV are better at spreading a message than most other media.

"It's just a really big audience, a really powerful medium," she said. "It's a big bang for the buck. And it's emotionally compelling. You get to walk into someone's life and feel it, witness, hear it from their own mouths."

jcolson@postindependent.com


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The Post Independent Updated Feb 3, 2013 01:13AM Published Feb 3, 2013 01:04AM Copyright 2013 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.