NRH’s Weekly Analysis: Gasland and truth


Truth is an odd, odd beast. Supersize Me has become notorious for dodging some facts and a host of other documentaries have folded under scrutiny. Gasland has been of interest to me because I want to know the truth. It will affect me. Here in England we too will be joining the fracking leagues very soon. Gasland dives into a world and shows an almost endemic spread of natural gas depots and disgusting episodes, throwing videos of sick and destroyed households one by one at you until you want it to stop. Because it’s an uncomfortable truth.

As I sat there at the end of the film I was left wondering as what exactly the purpose of a documentary is. Surely it is predominantly to inform rather than entertain. Still, however, Gasland was as compelling as some nice political thriller. The last ten minutes seemed to be straight out of a 1970s Capitol Hill drama too. In this Weekly Analysis I’d like to take a hammer and chisel to the question of what exactly is the point of a documentary through Gasland‘s own presentation of truths.

Josh Fox, the filmmaker, begins “I’m not a pessimist” and that “maybe I’ll start at the beginning” before questioning himself again “no maybe…” and diving to a completely different beginning. The history of water legislation is collided with his own personal torment, in the present, over a $100,000 goldmine of a contract that lies in his hands. A documentary should inform and while the history lessons fills in the blanks it’s Josh’s own personal drama that’s given more weight. We spend a lot of time in the company of him in his home while he is phoning natural gas companies and other contractors to try and wrangle out an interview or two. He has some inkling of the damaging effects of fracking but decides to set out to fully investigate, playing the part of a ‘detective’ for the rest of the feature.

It’s here that I’m divided on Gasland. The home scenes seem reminiscent of Supersize Me and its own emotional manipulation. At one point Josh literally says “I could feel myself getting sucked in getting deeper and deeper” and how some of the scenes “stirred up something in me”. As an amateur historian I’m reminded that truth, and the pursuit of truth, may be impossible. Philosophers and historians have argued that any academic discipline, and the entire subject of history, depends upon subjective viewpoints, analysis and bias. The ‘truth’ may never be found; history is objective but the study of it is subjective. Does the same apply to documentary filmmaking? Pieces may be left out, and entire facts too, so that the thesis and narrative you’re trying to construct can be cohesive. All humans are subject to scrutiny but truth, by definition, cannot be.

Except, well, any search for truth is in itself noble. Sometimes the search itself illuminates something about humanity or some kind of deeper, emotional truth. Gasland tours the country and shows us jars, so many jars, of gloop that has become the water for some of these families. It shows us the dangers and reflects pictures of pasts, idyllic landscapes and reflective streams against near post-apocalyptic vistas of dead trees, rabbits and ruined rivers. There is weight given to these stories, to the names and to the feeling behind all of this. One victim says “it’s amazing what took nature millions of years to build can be destroyed in an hour with a few pieces of heavy machinery.”

But there I go detailing them to be a ‘victim’, falling into the emotional trap. The film shows Fox’s attempts to get the other side and he does gain some interviews with the political machinery that has allowed this to happen. The companies refuse to believe that their fracking has caused water to become toxic and, well, Fox shows tens of families whose lives have been affected by the mining of natural gas. Gasland uses personal stories, scores of them, in order to argue a case that natural gas fracking is a dangerous and destructive process that harms humans and the environment.

None of its environmentalist call to harms ever appears as adverse or prissy either. Gasland is an odd documentary. It mixes facts with anecdotes and seems to come up with an elixir of a great argument. Like any good film it achieves a base, well-told narrative complete with odd ‘dark cinematography’ and some emotional depth “pains all over the body” “headaches” “didn’t plan her day anymore”. Yet there’s an important question asked in the film. Josh is attempting to make a documentary and yet with all the editing trickery, cinematography, lighting, narrative techniques and whatnot he is still making a film. He still has to get the best possible literal view on some things and he is told at one point to “stop tryna make it pretty” and to “show it for what it is”.

Gasland shows us a world of literal ugly truth and the irony behind the gas giants’ pledges of making America completely energy independent in nationalistic rhetoric. They tear up the soil and destroy the lives of entire towns, wipe out whole vast counties under a blanket of ‘red zones’. Josh says, at the end, that his search revealed “the love for this whole country”, that true patriotic valor comes not from the corporations and their wallets but from the families and citizens who say “we need to stand up to these assholes”.

It’s difficult, however, to still separate the fact from the personal stories in Gasland. There’s an attention to detail with creating a narrative told through various lenses of families spread throughout America. There’s also an effort to thread through these stories the common symptoms, something Josh becomes “familiar” with, and at one point he looks back on his actual documenting and sees his literal journey may have been in fact poisonous to his very body. All while speaking over it with damp, honest narration. The level of personal involvement in the film should, by all accounts, mix up the truth. There will certainly be an omission of certain and truthful elements behind the whole story but Fox, with Gasland, shows a well-argued side that manages to blend realities to win over the audience.

I’m reminded that documentaries search for the truth but perhaps not all ‘good’ documentaries are actually truthful. Supersize Me is still an entertaining film and Gasland is certainly compelling in some way. For all of its arguments and facts, which hold great weight, the most powerful element of Gasland is its display of the human one. It reminds me of one of the best environmentalist rants told by Louis CK in a single skit in which he covers God’s response to our modern-day mess. Sometimes the human element, the very opposite of truth, the irrational, is sometimes needed to tell the whole story.