Hot Docs: Gasland Review


There’s no questioning the fact that the environmental documentary is one of the most over-saturated sub-genre’s of non-fiction filmmaking. I have to admit that my hopes are rarely high when attending them. Maybe it’s my love of seeing things burn or explode at the hands of giant machine gun wielding men (with muscles) that makes me shy away from films that talk about going green. With that in mind, it was to my pleasant surprise that Gasland actually contained things that burn (water) and explode (fracking). No machine gun wielding men though. Just a camera, banjo and a gas mask.

While I do love action films, I certainly don’t shy away from environmental films for the reasons I’ve stated above. There’s a lot of cinematic value to be had in a well crafted environmental film. (I’m trying my best to think of an appropriate synonym for ‘environmental’ to avoid repeating it throughout this review) I think problems arise when a film is so packed with facts and figures that story and characters take a hit, transforming what should otherwise be a cinematic experience into an episode of Dateline, relying on tired television techniques. Gasland director — and ‘star’ — Josh Fox manages to inject enough charm, humour and creativity into Gasland to elevate beyond a simple message film. He’s raising awareness of the effects of hydraulic fraking for natural gas while still indulging in some creative, and personal, filmmaking.

When Fox is presented with a letter offering him big bucks to sell a chunk of his land for natural gas drilling, he decides to look into the possible side effects before making his decision. It only takes a minimal amount of digging before he stirs up some crazy stories of people who have felt wronged after thinking that the service they’d agreed to was actually safe. As it turns out, the money might not be worth the trouble. As Fox goes from house to house uncovering stories of tainted water lines and mysteriously sick animals, rumours spread about a man who’s water can literally be lit on fire. This leads to the strongest image in the film as a bunch of guys, including Fox, gather around a tap and watch as the streaming water ignites into an impressively sizeable fireball. It’s a great moment as it’s both terrifying and hilarious, which is a rare mix in environmental message films. (At least the ones that don’t rely on a goofy South Park-esque cartoon sequence to explain the details of whatever subject they’re discussing in a ‘humourous’ fashion) I must admit though, I thought it was a bit of a mis-step going back to this image on multiple occasions in different households. I suppose it’s meant to suggest that this is a widespread problem, but I thought it let a bit of air out of the initial power of the image. Not a big deal though.

Gasland succeeds as both an environmental film and a cinematic experience. It has a message and certainly contains some interesting information. However, I think the film truly shines thanks to Fox’s personal touch. If there were anything to complain about, it might be a meandering second act — we visit a lot of families with many similar stories — and a weak climactic meeting with a member of a Pennsylvania Environmental protection agency that doesn’t really go anywhere in my opinion. The film also comes very close to overstaying its welcome, but again, no biggie.

Gasland is a visually inventive video diary that works because of Fox’s humour, sense of tone and pacing (editor Matthew Sanchez cuts with an infectious energy that reminded me a bit of last year’s Dear Zachary) and his determination and do-it-yourself investigating.