Sandwiching Oscar weekend, two films nominated for Best Documentary Feature came to Pomona last week as part of the college’s 2nd Annual Sustainability Film Festival People |Places|Spaces. In a very strong year for documentaries, Gasland and Waste Land edged out Oscar-winner Inside Job with 100% fresh ratings on the review-aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, but neither film went home with the coveted little gilded man.
The fact that both films feature the word “land” in their titles may be more than coincidence. Gasland is a riff off of Woody Guthrie’s classic folk song “This Land is Your Land,” which Director Josh Fox repeatedly jams out to on his banjo. The democratic promise of the song stands in contrast to the situation depicted in the film, where longtime residents have little ability to stop (or be compensated for) the pollution of their air and water by natural gas drilling. Similarly, Waste Land seems to refer to a land—in this case, Brazil—defined by its dismissal of material goods and people as disposable, as waste without value. Those hoping for a live-action reenactment of the T.S. Eliot poem will be disappointed.
The screening of Gasland last Friday was followed by an appearance by director Josh Fox to answer questions. Fox confirmed the low-budget nature of the film’s production, which is readily apparent from the jerky, handheld shots. But this works to the film’s advantage in many situations, as the one or two man crew is able to capture natural, profound, and intimate moments that give the film authenticity—the je ne sais quoi that makes or breaks documentaries.
Gasland follows Fox’s personal journey, beginning with his reception of a leasing offer for natural gas drilling rights on his family property in Western Pennsylvania. He then travels to nearby Dimock, Pennsylvania, where drilling is already widespread. To tap into the immense Marcellus Shale in the Eastern U.S., gas companies are using a new process known as hydraulic fracturing or simply “fracking”—the injection of water and chemicals into the ground to fracture the shale and release natural gas.
Many of these chemicals, such as Benzene, are toxic and seep into groundwater and vaporize into the air. Fox travels around the country to other fracking areas to document the devastating effects of the pollution on local residents’ health. In some areas, the tap water is so saturated with gas that it burns when lit. The film also serves as a reminder of the seemingly extralegal power the fossil fuel industry exerts on this country. The contents of the fracking fluids do not even need to be reported.
Gasland has been attacked by the gas industry, which submitted an appeal to the Academy to disqualify the film for perceived inaccuracies. And indeed, a more impartial analysis of the situation may be found in this week’s New York Times. However, it is due in no small part to Gasland that fracking has received this press coverage. Fox’s involvement in the issue, however, is far from done; he revealed that he is in the process of filming a new documentary on renewable energy that would obviate the need for fracking. A theater director by trade, Fox had little idea of how personally invested he would become when he personally encountered the victims of fracking.
The second film, Waste Land, follows the quest of Brazil-born artist Vik Muniz to create art with the catadores—pickers of recyclable materials—of the world’s largest dump outside of So Paolo, Brazil. The Huffington Post called it “the Slumdog Millionaire of documentaries,” presumably because it centers on poor brown people, but this seems to be a striking mischaracterization of the film.
In brief, Muniz chooses a few charismatic individuals from among the trash pickers, takes their portraits, and recruits them to reconstruct the portraits on a warehouse scale with recyclable materials salvaged from the landfill. The portraits are displayed and sold, reaping them funds to improve their community.
A synopsis does little to describe why the film is compelling. Waste Land differs from Slumdog Millionaire because it does not glorify a lottery path to riches. Muniz and his colleagues worry about how they might hurt the catadores by exposing them to wealth—all of them are present at the exhibition opening—without providing them with a concrete means out of poverty. But in the end, they decide that they can provide a real human benefit—dignity—in addition to financial help.
As the catadores work on the art, they begin to look at themselves differently. One woman leaves her abusive husband, another gets a job in a pharmacy, and one man even dreams of becoming president. One older woman returns to the landfill. It is emancipation from spiritual poverty. But we don’t get to see much of the transformation. Insofar as Muniz treats the catadores with respect, the filmmakers do as well. It is not reality TV; they do not invade their subjects’ lives. Nonetheless, Waste Land succeeds at depicting the catadores as wonderfully and fully human.
Like any good documentary should, both films hit close to home. Although filmed outside of California, the films remind us of the people implicated in Claremont’s largely invisible resource streams. Waste Land centers on pickers of recycling in the landfill outside of So Paolo. Here in Claremont, recycling is trucked 19 miles to a warehouse, where the material is hand-sorted on a conveyer belt. Gasland details the deleterious effects on human health of the “fracking” method of natural gas drilling. Half of Claremont electricity comes from burning natural gas, of which at least 12% comes from fracking, according to Fox.
The film festival will continue Thursday, March 24th with Grassroots Rising. For a list of other films in the festival, and information about Pomona sustainability efforts, go topomona.edu/sustainability.