You think the kids are alright? Well look at this tiny blue pin on my shirt and think again

Michael Giberson

From the press release:

NEW YORK–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Mark Ruffalo and other Oscar nominees will wear a blue water droplet pin during Sunday night’s Academy Awards as a way of asking Americans to be stewards of our treasured water supply, which is currently in jeopardy due to extreme drilling and includes natural gas hydro-fracking. The pin is an initiative of WaterDefense.org, a new campaign calling attention to the impacts on drinking water caused by increasingly extreme methods used to extract fossil fuels.

WaterDefense.org’s Oscar initiative follows a recent day in D.C. where Mark Ruffalo and “GASLAND” Director, Josh Fox, met with Congressional members about the issue. “Gasland”, a documentary about natural gas hydro-fracking, is also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary this year. Ruffalo, who’s nominated for Best-Supporting Actor for “The Kids Are Alright”, and other Oscar celebrities, will be wearing their water droplet pins at the Awards gala and other festivities to help raise awareness for the issue. The pin is two-fold in meaning – it represents our prized natural water resources and is also a tear for what’s happened as a result of it not being protected.

I haven’t be able to find an image of the pin online, the website at “WaterDefense.org” wasn’t available when I tried it, but in my imagination a small blue water droplet pin looks a lot like a small blue natural gas flame pin. For me, the pins will have a four-fold meaning: (1) our prized natural water resources, (2) a tear for what’s happened to it, (3) our prized natural gas resources, and (4) a tear for those people with higher energy bills or limited access to heating because of restrictions on resource development.

But I can’t imagine actually watching the Oscar ceremony live, so the pins will have to wait until I read the news online the next morning before they have the four-fold meaning to me.

The Gasland documentary, up for an Oscar in the documentary category, has been the subject of a lot of complaints by industry (more or less summed up as “it’s a pack of lies”) and spirited defense by its director (more or less summed up as “no it isn’t”). Mike Soraghan of Greenwire examined the industry complaints and the filmmaker’s claims to see where the truth is. His conclusion: “The filmmaker and industry have each made errors and have spun some facts to their outer limits.”

To me it looks like a fair examination of the issues (but industry and filmmaker probably wouldn’t agree).

The issue of “fictionalization” arises in both the documentary and Best Picture category. Many of the movies nominated for Best Picture are based on real events, but are fictionalized to various degrees: The Social Network, The Fighter, The King’s Speech and 127 Hours. Questions always arise in such cases about how far the filmmaker can to in bending fact in order to tell a compelling story.

(A local theater is showing five of the ten Best Picture nominees today: The Social Network, The Fighter, The King’s Speech, True Grit, and Black Swan. I’m not sure I can sit through 10+ hours of film in one day, but I’m going to give it a try. Well, almost. I’ve seen True Grit already, so I’ll be able to take a dinner break.)

 

More about the Haynesville documentary

Michael Giberson

In advance of the screening next week at SXSW, the Austin Chronicle presents a story about Haynesville and its director Gregory Kallenberg.  Here’s a bit of it:

The Rev. Reegis Richard was wandering through a field, hungrily eyeing a dilapidated former school and dreaming of the possibilities, when a Haynesville producer climbed over a fence out of curiosity. Five minutes later, a camera crew was set up, says documentary director Gregory Kallenberg.

It was the sort of serendipitous moment that has guided his documentary, which explores how a massive shale natural gas find in Louisiana is both fueling the dreams of Louisiana’s downtrodden and crushing them, while providing a potential solution to our nation’s energy thirst.

[…] Kallenberg interweaves Richard’s story along with those of Mike Smith, a good old boy who finds himself a sudden multimillionaire from the shale his 300 acres of land contains, and – perhaps the doc’s most gripping character – Kassi Fitzgerald, a single mother who turns into a driven community activist to make sure both her economically depressed neighbors and the environment are treated fairly.

Many views on the Haynesville shale resource

Michael Giberson

The documentary film Haynesville offers a view of the shale gas boom from the point of view of several landowners in northeastern Louisiana. One of the landowners is a sort of good-ol’-boy type who hung onto family land and added to it even as family members moved away. His 300 or so acres of backwoods land made him a multi-millionaire when the gas developers came to town. Another part of the story shows the impact of the gas money on a growing church congregation; the preacher wants to build a new Christian school with the money. The film also follows the activities of a mother who gathers small landowners into a large block to negotiate with the gas companies for both higher payments and contractual protection for water quality and other environmental values.

Haynesville movie thumbnail imageIntertwined in these stories are some talking-head interviews with energy, environmental, and policy experts. I found these parts of the film mildly intrusive – but that’s probably because I already spend too much of my life reading about energy resource policy issues; likely most viewers will find the contextual information helpful. The film should be required viewing for landowners sitting over shale gas resources, especially in areas not used to oil and gas development.

The documentary is making the rounds. A showing is coming up in Houston on March 4, and the film will be part of the SXSW festival in Austin in a few weeks. If you’re interested in more information on the film, check out the website or become a fan of Haynesville on Facebook.

One of the natural gas companies doing a lot of the development of the Haynesville shale resource is Chesapeake. See, for example, their “February 2010 Investor
Presentation
,” which details their interests and optimism about their work in Haynesville and elsewhere. This three-page document explains Chesapeake’s hydraulic fracturing process, including a description of the (very small amount of) chemical additives that get injected along with a lot of water and sand as part of the fracing. The summary is produced by Chesapeake, so maybe it minimized the possible risks, but the environmental risks do appear to be small. Some information on the topic is included in the Wikipedia article on hydraulic fracturing.

Meanwhile, the new conventional view that shale gas will ensure plenty of domestic natural gas for the United States for the next 100 years remains under criticism from skeptics who believe the resources are significantly over-estimated. Allen Brooks, at Musings from the Oil Patch, provides a review of some recent analysis from skeptics. As I’ve said before, it seems obvious to me that the people in the best position to know – the folks doing the drilling and producing from shale formations – have clearly signaled what they think is true by spending huge amounts of money to secure leases and develop additional properties. Nonetheless, production of vast quantities of gas from shale remains a relatively new commercial activity, so a certain amount of unavoidable uncertainty remains.

Power Trip documentary to be aired

Michael Giberson

Power Trip - film by Paul Devlin

Power Trip - film by Paul Devlin

From the inbox comes word that Paul Devlin’s documentary, Power Trip, will be aired this weekend on BBC World and in the PBS World Voices program.  The film tells the story of the efforts of AES Corporation to succeed as the owners of the newly privatized (in January 1999) electric utility in Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

Several years ago, in a post on politics and documentary film, I called Power Trip “one of the best documentaries I’ve seen.” I said:

The film offers a perspective on capitalism and corporations hard to get in the Western world, because in the West so much of the institutional framework is taken for granted. In the beginning only 10 percent of Tbilisi customers were paying their electric bills, because they were used to power being “free” (i.e. provided by the government). Of course, electric power was also unreliable (unless you had good political connections). In Power Trip you can get a flavor of such abstract phrases as “institutional framework,” and why they might matter to making the world a better place.

Should be required viewing for international development professionals and students of comparative economic systems, development studies, or the economics of institutions. Actually, everybody should go see it.

Links to broadcast times June 13 and 14 are available on the Power Trip “Screenings” page.

A Liberal Power Trip: Real capitalism at the movies

Michael Giberson

A documentary on the media, Orwell Rolls Over in his Grave, opens today in the Washington, D.C., area, reminding me of the recent newspaper story in the Washington Post about the dominance of left-leaning view points in documentary movies (“Liberal Documentarians Are the Reel Majority“). The newspaper article by Tommy Nguyen asks why, while right wing viewpoints dominate talk radio and bookstores, documentaries seem to be almost exclusively from the left.

The views presented in the article don’t seem too thoughtful. In brief: from the left, documentaries come from the left because conservatives aren’t interested in changing the world; from the right, conservatives can’t get documentaries made because they don’t have friends in Hollywood. Read the article if you want the nuances.

I like the idea of political filmmaking in theory. In order to persuade other folks of your positions, you’ve got to connect up what you believe with what they value. It is a process more of rhetoric than rationality, and the rhetorical tools available in film are much richer than those available in print.

But a lot of political documentaries fall flat – failing as art, failing as a rhetorical effort. No one is persuaded. Judging from reactions, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 falls into this category, though I haven’t seen it.

The other day during a late-night link-drunk blog crawl, I stumbled across remarks by Terry Teachout that seemed to get at the problem:

The insurmountable problem of explicitly political art, it seems to me, is that it is, literally, exclusive. As a result, it fails in what I take to be one of the defining responsibilities of aesthetically serious art, which is to aspire to universality, speaking (at least potentially) to all men in all conditions.

The only way art can do this is by reposing, in Dr. Johnson’s immortal words, on the stability of truth. By embodying and dramatizing truth, it brings us closer to understanding the nature of the human condition. And might such an enterprise be political? In a way, I suppose, though one must never forget that political opinions are epiphenomenal: they arise from experience rather than preceding it. (If they don’t, those who hold them are by definition out of touch with reality.)

Yes, political opinions arise from experience, and an effective documentary offers a bit of experience in a way that “brings us closer to understanding the nature of the human condition.” Anything that changes a person’s understanding of “the nature of the human condition,” is bound to have some political effects.

Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans, though not an explicitly political movie, can contribute to a viewer’s understanding of the social nature of truth and the limitations of the legal process to uncover what “actually happened.” Unlike the naive view that the “truth is out there” waiting for discovery, the documentary offers a more complicated perspective that should have political consequences.

Actually, I found Michael Moore’s Roger and Me to be both entertaining and effective social and political commentary about the interrelations between corporations and communities.

But the one of the best documentaries I’ve seen is Power Trip, by Paul Devlin. Devlin’s film tells the story of the efforts of AES Corporation to succeed as the new owners of the privatized electric utility in Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Again, this is not explicitly a political film, but the viewer comes away with a better sense of the nature of the human condition.

The film offers a perspective on capitalism and corporations hard to get in the Western world, because in the West so much of the institutional framework is taken for granted. In the beginning only 10 percent of Tbilisi customers were paying their electric bills, because they were used to power being “free” (i.e. provided by the government). Of course, electric power was also unreliable (unless you had good political connections). In Power Trip you can get a flavor of such abstract phrases as “institutional framework,” and why they might matter to making the world a better place.

Should be required viewing for international development professionals and students of comparative economic systems, development studies, or the economics of institutions. Actually, everybody should go see it.