The director of an Oscar-nominated documentary is standing firm in the wake of an oil and gas industry PR campaign aimed at undermining his shot at the podium.
On Feb. 1, industry group Energy In Depth (EID) sent a letter to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences arguing that Best Documentary Feature nominee Gasland is ineligible for a nod as the group maintains it’s a factually inaccurate work of “stylized fiction”.
“We’d like to take this opportunity to highlight the Academy’s posted criteria for entries nominated in the documentary feature category, and identify for you why we believe the work of one such nominee may fail to meet this standard,” EID’s executive director Lee Fuller writes in the letter.
“The filmmaker alternates between misstating and outright ignoring basic and verifiable facts related to the impact of these activities on the health and welfare of humans, wildlife and the environment.”
Fuller is also the vice-president of government relations for the Independent Petroleum Producers Association, an oil and gas industry lobby group.
Earlier this week, Fox sent a letter to the press denouncing the move as a “dirty” attack and not-so-slick PR spin. In an interview with realscreen on Thursday, the director reaffirmed the accuracy of his reporting in the film, for which he crisscrossed the United States interviewing families who believe the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, a method of extracting underground natural gas reserves, is contaminating the environment.
“This is the most personal project I’ve ever made and it’s probably the most visible and vulnerable I’ve ever been in my life,” he says. “But at the same time I know the facts. The facts are there to read. We stand behind the facts. We stand behind the film 100%.”
Gasland isn’t the first doc to awaken the big business PR machine. Director Joe Berlinger has been fighting a legal battle with Chevron over footage from his 2009 documentary Crude, Michael Moore has repeatedly rankled corporate America with muckraking docs such as Sicko and Louis Psihoyos’ The Cove, a doc about an annual dolphin slaughter in Japan, won the best documentary feature Oscar last year despite objections from the Japanese fishing industry.
The Academy has so far remained silent on the Gasland controversy, so some of the film’s supporters have launched a Twitter petition encouraging officials to re-affirm its eligibility.
Fox says he first became aware of EID’s campaign when an audience member attending a sold-out screening in Washington, DC last year unleashed a pejorative commentary on Twitter. Then, in June, the organization posted a fact sheet called “Debunking Gasland” online that characterized Fox as an “avant-garde” director with questionable filmmaking qualifications.
“What they’re trying to do is make the film into this ‘Hollywood’ or ‘liberal media’ kind of a thing, which is not what this movie is,” he says. “There are a lot of those kinds of documentaries but that’s not what this is. We have people from all walks of life from all over the country [in the film]. We have red states, we have blue states.”
Fox has since posted a point-by-point response to EID entitled “Affirming Gasland” online.
Gasland premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival where it picked up the Special Jury Prize and numerous accolades. It began airing on HBO in the summer of last year, and a series of grassroots-organized screenings across the U.S. extended its theatrical life into 2011, generating a few eyebrow-raising headlines along the way. For example, actor Mark Ruffalo told GQ magazine in November that Pennsylvania’s Office of Homeland Security added his name to a terror watch list after he organized a screening.
The film began as a personal project in 2008 after Fox received a letter from a natural gas company offering to lease his family-owned land in Pennsylvania’s Delaware watershed for $100,000. He turned them down and set out on a journey interviewing families in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Texas who have experienced health effects after agreeing to lease their land for drilling. In the film’s most memorable scenes, residents are seen lighting their tap water on fire.
Fox comes to the documentary world from a theater background. He’s staged 25 large-scale plays with his New York-based International WOW Company. After principle photography on Gasland wrapped in 2009, he spent eight months in post-production, sometimes working through the night after spending the day with the theater company.
The film is now available on DVD through New Video’s Docurama Films brand. Fox says a follow-up film is in the works, though the director is not yet sure if the sequel will take feature-length or episodic form. He’s also working on a documentary about renewable energy, researching two narrative feature ideas and has applied for a Rockefeller Foundation cultural innovation grant through WOW to build sustainable theaters that operate “off the grid”.
“Although I wasn’t a doc filmmaker before, it’s great as an artist to find a new way of addressing yourself and your audience,” he says. “I really love it and I love the documentary film community. They are incredibly generous and smart people so I want to continue to be a part of that.
“What’s happened to me in looking at Gasland is happening to hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of people across New York and Pennsylvania, which is this incredible realization that you now have skin in the game,” he adds. “You now matter in the question of where we get our energy from.”