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Is The Issue Doc Dead? How 'Gasland' and 'Hillary' Show Things Aren't Looking Great

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire October 22, 2012 at 7:10AM

It has been almost three years since Josh Fox debuted his anti-fracking documentary "Gasland" at the Sundance Film Festival.  There, it caused spirited conversation amongst audiences and won a Special Jury Prize at the festival. 
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HBO A faucet on fire in Josh Fox's "Gasland."

It has been almost three years since Josh Fox debuted his anti-fracking documentary "Gasland" at the Sundance Film Festival.  There, it caused spirited conversation amongst audiences and won a Special Jury Prize at the festival. 

The film went on to screen on HBO, was licensed in over 30 countries for television, and Fox personally took the film to over 200 cities.  Many many more local community groups, universities and organizations screened the film without Fox there.  The film has been an incredibly useful tool for organizing in affected communities. 

"Gasland" is especially interesting because it has a smoking gun.  You see "Gasland," you know fracking is wrong.  The disastrous effects of fracking are shown in stark terms.

Citizens' groups in affected areas have documented for some time the problems they have encountered, especially with respect to their water supply, when the frackers come to town.  In one of the most damning pieces of evidence against anyone in the history of documentary film, Fox visits a family who turns on their faucet -- the same water they clean with, but no longer drink -- and proceeds to light the water coming out of the faucet on fire.

We just learned that Mitt Romney likes -- but wants to kill the government subsidy to -- Big Bird. At the first presidential debate, we also learned that Mitt Romney likes clean coal, and he wants to end the taxes levied against burning coal. He also supports, like his opponent Barack Obama, fracking -- the process of sending a cocktail of chemicals into our ground and (due to unreliable concrete) water supply to break through rocks and reach natural gas reserves.

Fracking often takes place on large tracts of land bought from financially struggling farmers and other landowners. For land under which lies natural gas reserves, the gas companies will pay a pretty sum for this land.

As Fox details in his short film, "The Sky Is Pink," made for Rolling Stone magazine, the fossil fuel lobby created a response to the film, which was placed at the top of Google search results.

THE SKY IS PINK by Josh Fox and the GASLAND Team from JFOX on Vimeo.

"The Sky is Pink" is Fox's first attempt to explain why "Gasland" hasn't made the dent he knows it should. Working with HBO, he's developing a feature-length exposé, "Gasland 2," about why fracking rages on -- why Democrats like President Obama and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo support fracking (Cuomo has recently indicated that he is reconsidering this opinion).

"If the Cuomo administration does come out supporting fracking, they'll now be doing it in a very public way," Fox told Indiewire."They now know that whatever they do, they'll be in our film."

"Outside of the political campaign," Fox continued, "the fossil fuel industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars. As my good friend Bill McKibben likes to say 'I'm a Sunday School teacher, but I'll still say: These companies have more money than God.'"

But within political campaigns, especially this year's presidential campaign, the fossil fuel industry is incredibly entrenched in the campaigns of Romney and Obama. As the New York Times article explains, Obama's bending to the fossil fuel industry has not shown in the fossil fuel industry's donations to his campaigns.  Still, as many have pointed out, Romney's love for coal in the first debate was never put to question by the Presiden.  And Mr. Obama only briefly mentioned alternative fuels and fuel efficiency in the second debate.  Far removed from the days of Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim's "An Inconvenient Truth," Obama's alternative fuel investment missteps have turned energy overall into a liability for his campaign.

Looming large in this conversation is a Supreme Court case motivated by a documentary film. The Citizens United Supreme Court case, which began as a case about the right to air (on Direct TV and VOD) and advertise (on television) Citizen United's documentary, "Hillary," which encouraged people to find Hillary Clinton an unfit choice for President of the United States.

In a fascinating Supreme Court case, which had representatives from President Obama's Office of the Solicitor General's Office playing hot potato with the case once the Roberts Supreme Court made it clear that they would take the opportunity of this case to expand campaign finance laws to give corporations, under the guise of Political Action Committees, the same rights as people when it comes to campaign contributions. 

Citizens United had previously lobbied the SEC to find broadcast of advertisements of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" illegal under the same rules that "Hillary" was not found to be violating. 

As then Solicitor General, current Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan made clear, the Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart had made a misstep when he outlined what interests the government had in expanding the government's right to limit free political speech.  From Jeffrey Toobin's wise and forceful narrative of the Citizens United case in the New Yorker:

Since McCain-Feingold forbade the broadcast of “electronic communications” shortly before elections, this was a case about movies and television commercials. What else might the law regulate? “Do you think the Constitution required Congress to draw the line where it did, limiting this to broadcast and cable and so forth?” Alito said. Could the law limit a corporation from “providing the same thing in a book? Would the Constitution permit the restriction of all those as well?”

Yes, Stewart said: “Those could have been applied to additional media as well.”

The Justices leaned forward. It was one thing for the government to regulate television commercials. That had been done for years. But a book? Could the government regulate the content of a book?

As Toobin recounts it, in the re-hearing of the Citizens United case, in which Roberts was the architect for a larger scope for the case, Kagan has the burden of going back on Stewart's words.  But the damage, cleverly exploited by Roberts, was done.

The interpretation of a political documentary that took one individual politician up for political office to task had been made by the FEC.  Going against the decision earlier made to dismiss Citizen United's claim against "Fahrenheit 9/11," the willingness to challenge "Hillary" came from a position that accords great persuasive power to political documentaries screened on satellite TV, distributed via VOD, and advertised on television (i.e. political documentary on demand).  

In retrospect, of course, the government's case gave too much credit to the political persuasive or propagandistic power of a film screening on Direct TV and on VOD, advertised on cable.  The John Kerry smear campaign "Unfit for Command" was not the nail in Kerry's coffin, just as "Obama 2016," popular as it may be, has not destroyed our President.  What makes it worse, though, is that this misreading of the political communication -- and digital distribution -- landscape was exploited by Justice Roberts to provide some of the most controversial campaign finance reform to date. 

Roberts' reform of campaign finance reform was, in fact, inevitable.  He was, it seems, just waiting for the opportunity to But the historical trajectory of Citizens United makes this story all the more ironic.

In a cruel turn of events, the majority decision on Citizens United, written by Justice Kennedy, but orchestrated by Roberts (as Toobin so eloquently explains) has made it incredibly easy for the fossil fuel industry to bankroll whichever federal political campaigns they see fit. 

As Fox explains the decision, "If corporations are people, then the oil and gas industry are 50 ft tall humans.  You've got this incredible influx of corporate cash.  Citizens United makes doing the kind of work I want to do nearly impossible."

He continued, "Romney is a particularly bad sham of a candidate, but still the fossil fuel industry is totally behind him.  Just imagine that cash, and think about the influence the ads that this cash buys have on the issue."

Josh Fox, Director of Gasland

Returning to the issue at the heart of his "Gasland" series, Fox explained, "People think that with 150 years of fossil fuels, we've reached a standard of living that would only go down if we reduced our dependency on fossil fuels.  That's just untrue.  We can do it all with wind, sun and geothermal.  That is completely technologically feasible."

"Truthfully," Fox added, "the more we turn our country into swiss cheese, the more our standard of living goes down.  The more our planet warms, the more the standard of living goes down."

Fox is not only working on a completed version of "Gasland 2," he is also going back to his roots in theater to direct a play that deals with how society might deal with rising oceans.  "It's kind of exhausting to be dealing with these issues 24/7 as a political campaign," Fox told Indiewire.  "As artists, we need to deal with these issues in other ways."

The issue doc is not dead.  Recently, the military exposés "Semper Fi: Always Faithful" and "The Invisible War" have earned the ears of top brass.  The health care docs "The Waiting Room" and "Escape Fire" are getting raves for their portrayals of the American healthcare system's flaws.  As "The Waiting Room" director Peter Nicks writes in a first-person essay for Indiewire, film funders are simply unsure how to measure a worthy film project: "I have found it increasingly difficult to argue that a well-told story alone -- absent any obvious 'change apparatus' (whatever that means) -- can make a meaningful difference in today's media landscape, where change and impact are often measured in 'likes' and 'views' on social media, or influence a direct policy change that can be traced back to the film. Funders, just like voters, often demand immediate gratification. They want to see change happen before them in real time."

Issue docs just live in a very unique political ecosystem.  They now live in a world with fifty feet tall "humans" and industries with more money than God. 

As Fox explained to Indiewire, "Even if the fossil fuel industry threw a billion dollars at this issue, they still wouldn't put the genie in the bottle.  You have to spend a lot of money on a lie, but the truth gets out there."

This article is related to: Josh Fox, GASLAND, HBO, Issues & Actions, Documentary