By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire February 9, 2011 at 8:59AM
What happens when documentaries get political? People get mad. What happens when documentaries make money? People get greedy. indieWIRE offers its take on three documentary slugfests that have been throwing their punches in public and in the courts.
The Natural Gas Industry vs. Josh Fox's "Gasland"
The Issue: Josh Fox's HBO documentary "Gasland," which won a special jury prize when it premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, is also Oscar-nominated for best documentary feature. The film castigates the natural gas industry for its practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and "Gasland" has become a lightning rod for the industry. When Mike Hale reviewed the film for its HBO debut, he noted, "[I]t’s maddening to see how easy he makes it for the film’s critics to attack him, and how difficult for sympathetic but objective viewers to wholly embrace him." Comparing Fox to his provocateur predecessor Michael Moore, Hale notes that much of the film is spent detailing who refused to speak with Fox and his crew, instead of sticking to the facts at hand.
What's At Stake? There's an Oscar dangling within Fox's reach. As for the issues themselves, Fox paints a scary future for clean and accessible freshwater. In some of the film's most shocking scenes, he visits homes where water coming out of the tap can be set on fire. While various states wait for the U.S. Congress to pass the U.S. FRAC Act, a series of bills have been proposed in state legislatures across the country. These bills would require natural gas companies to reveal the chemicals they use in the fracking process.
The Natural Gas Industry Says: "While it’s unfortunate there isn’t an Oscar category for propaganda, this nomination is fitting, as the Oscars are aimed at praising pure entertainment among Hollywood’s elite," slugs Lee Fuller, the executive director of Energy in Depth. He continues, "This film, however, as a host of independent environmental regulators have confirmed, fails woefully short of these fundamental objectives."
Josh Fox Says: Fox points out that people like Fuller and self-appointed gas industry spokesman T. Boone Pickens skirt the issue by failing to answer what specific inaccuracies the film has. He stands by his film and all of its claims, which can be read in a long open letter to the media.
indieWIRE Says: An Oscar win looks unlikely for "Gasland" (but never say never). In years past, the health insurance industry may have drowned out any chance for "Sicko" to succeed; however, the Japanese dolphin industry wasn't able to stop Academy voters from falling in love with "The Cove" last year. The publicity drummed up by both sides could shed some more light on the facts of the case. If the big money lobbyists get in the way, this issue could be buried. Chances are if any more kitchen sink faucets dispense flammable water, it'll continue to be hard to ignore.
Michael Moore vs. The Weinsteins
The Issue: "Fahrenheit 9/11," the only documentary ever to gross more than $100 million at the box office, was a huge hit for the king of doc provocateurs, Michael Moore. He claims that he was cheated out of millions by the film's distributors, the Weinstein brothers.
What's at Stake? According to the lawsuit Moore brought against the Weinsteins, $2.7 million.
Michael Moore Says: The Weinsteins cheated him through smoke-and-mirrors accounting.
The Weinsteins Say: It's all a clever story concocted by the greedy Mr. Moore.
indieWIRE Says: Moore's voice is an important one; the Weinsteins are known for their film business acumen. That said, we all know both parties have their shady sides and if the accountants start digging, who knows what they'll find. It shouldn't be too long before this one gets settled out of court and the two parties can figure out a way to be cordial.
Chevron vs. Joe Berlinger's "Crude"
The Issue: "Crude" is Joe Berlinger's chronicle of an Ecuadorian class-action suit against Chevron based on accusations that a Texaco oil field (now owned by Chevron) has polluted the plaintiffs' water supply. Chevron wants Berlinger to hand over outtakes to support their case in the class-action suit, which Berlinger has resisted under his rights as a journalist.
What's at Stake? The legal definition of documentary filmmaking writ large and all of the first-amendment privileges that could potentially come with it.
Chevron Says: The film was solicited by the plaintiffs and therefore is not journalism. Fork over the footage.
Joe Berlinger Says: The film was pitched by the plaintiffs, but he made a decision to make the film on his own. The plaintiffs did not pay him to make the film and it should be protected under the same first-amendment privileges afforded to journalists. Various journalistic organizations submitted amicus briefs in support of Berlinger's position.
indieWIRE Says: Last month, a federal appeals court ruled that Berlinger can't invoke a journalist's privilege since his work didn't constitute an act of independent reporting. Since then, Chevron has obtained hundreds of hours of outtakes and filed its own countersuit against its original plaintiffs. According to International Documentary Association president Eddie Schmidt, the organization has pledged to make this first amendment case a priority in its work for the larger community of doc filmmakers. Writing for The Atlantic, lawyer Garrett Epps noted, "Putting the burden on the journalist to convince a trial court he is 'independent' turns the First Amendment on its head. It makes every trial judge a press critic." Along with "Gasland" and past challenges to Moore's work, this case makes clear the need for a clear definition for the legal definition of the rights of a filmmaker. With any luck, Epps' argument or something like it will become statute and filmmakers can continue to do the important investigative work without legal worries.