Industry gets cast in 'FrackNation,' the latest documentary on the drilling debate


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The fracking fight is coming soon to a theater near you.

More than a dozen Pennsylvania communities that are home to natural gas drilling will get the big-screen treatment this summer in "FrackNation," a new movie attempting to serve as a counterargument to the 2010 "Gasland" feature that still fuels the anti-drilling fracktivist movement.

"FrackNation" was directed by Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, a married couple living in Marina del Rey, Calif., whose previous subjects include Al Gore and anti-coal environmentalists. Their treatment of natural gas drilling will "look at both sides of the argument," Mr. McAleer said.

The film, however, is being partially funded through donations on the Kickstarter website, and the roster of "executive producers" who have donated at least $1 includes scores of energy industry associates. The filmmakers said Thursday they plan to return any donations given by "senior" workers in the industry, which they define as executives.

So far, "FrackNation" has raised more than $150,000 through the New York-based website, which allows anyone to contribute any amount of money to a project.

Mr. McAleer and Ms. McElhinney are already stars of the Republican Party and see the drilling debate as the latest example of out-of-touch, urban elites trying to dictate how the people closest to drilling live their lives.

The film will be timed to coincide with the release of "Gasland 2," an HBO-funded sequel to filmmaker Josh Fox's takedown of the industry that also includes significant coverage of Pennsylvania.

The dueling documentaries illustrate an expensive and unusual way to lobby: at the movies. Agenda-driven documentaries have no guarantee of success, with some like "Super Size Me" -- Morgan Spurlock's 2004 indictment of the fast food industry -- taking over the national conversation and making millions at the box office. Others air on the Web only, circulating only among the like-minded.

Available footage and trailers of "FrackNation" play rather like industry commercials that have already been seen across Western Pennsylvania, telling stories of farmers and landowners who say gas drilling provides economic stability.

The filmmakers want to avoid their work being labeled as pro-industry propaganda, but support for the project has been strongest among those who want to see just that.

The team's Kickstarter campaign -- meant to ensure that the film is financed by "the 99 percent" and not the wealthy few, Mr. McAleer said -- has been promoted by pro-industry lobbying groups Energy in Depth and the Marcellus Shale Coalition. The average donation is around $60, Mr. McAleer said.

The roster of "executive producers" helping to finance the film includes the director of an Ohio-based oil and gas outreach program and the head of external affairs at Cabot Oil and Gas, the company that's fought accusations of water contamination in Dimock, Pa., for the past several years.

About 80 percent of the "FrackNation" footage was filmed in Pennsylvania, and it includes a trip to Dimock to interview homeowners who say their water was contaminated and neighbors who say those claims are overblown.

"We're definitely covering the contamination" in the film, Mr. McAleer said. "We feature both sides."

Still, the couple has had no qualms about expressing a point of view.

Their previous films include "Mine Your Own Business," which accuses the environmentalist movement of a radicalism that strangles local economies, and "Not Evil Just Wrong," a retort to Mr. Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" that scrutinizes global warming warnings.

Those movies are available on DVD and were viewed at film festivals, conferences and in community screenings across the country.

The filmmakers are proud to say critics likened "Mine Your Own Business" to "Nazi propaganda" and "pornography."

"Look at environmentalism," Mr. McAleer said. "It's outsiders coming in and treating people like children."

"FrackNation" should run about 85 minutes when the team finishes editing in California, and Mr. McAleer is meeting with distributors to discuss getting the feature into theaters in July.

Meanwhile, "Gasland 2" is expected to air on HBO this summer before a tour of screenings across the country to coincide with the election season. HBO aired the original "Gasland" and funded its sequel for $750,000.

The original "Gasland," which was seen in community screenings before airing on HBO, has its share of critics and even inspired a seven-page rebuttal from Energy in Depth called "Debunking Gasland," which Mr. Fox responded to with "Affirming Gasland."

Mr. Fox worked as a director and auteur in the New York art scene before the drilling near a family home in Pennsylvania inspired the documentary that's since made him a hero of the activist movement.

The film's most famous scene, in which a landowner lights his water on fire, was criticized for not explaining that methane can be found in water because of decades-old drilling and is not necessarily the result of hydraulic fracturing.

Mr. Fox was arrested in February while filming coverage for the sequel during a House subcommittee meeting on hydraulic fracturing -- a removal that backers called a First Amendment violation and critics called a publicity stunt.

Publicity for "FrackNation" has already begun, as well.

Ms. McElhinney spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, warning against "anti-fossil fuel rants" in a self-designed T-shirt that said, "Fracking Brilliant."

The couple's Kickstarter campaign had no problem hitting its goal of $150,000 -- donors raised $22,000 in the first two days, and donations will still be accepted for another month. The movie will include the names of all donors in the closing credits.

The donors' enthusiasm comes from the pent-up desire to see a balanced take on the drilling debate, Mr. McAleer said.

"I can guarantee you now that both sides of the argument will be heard," he said.


Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.


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