Note: This article is also included in our year-end creative wisdom round-up.
"I came into this as one person who was trying to process this decision and trying to add it to the dialogue," says Josh Fox, who leapt into the deep end of filmmaking-as-activism when a gas company offered to lease his Pennsylvania property so it could extract natural gas through the controversial method of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fox’s 2010 documentary Gasland investigated the hazardous health effects of fracking and the "overwhelming flood of misinformation from the gas industry." It also popularized images of regular people lighting their tap water on fire because of fracking. The movie premiered at Sundance and was nominated for an Oscar.
Now he’s taken the unusual tack of creating a documentary sequel, Gasland Part II, premiering July 8 on HBO. "I wanted to know why we didn’t see any action," says Fox, who has long run a theater company known for its potent political content. "We wanted to find out what the reaction was going to be and why was it so difficult to have action on this from people who we thought would be on our side?" Namely, Democrats, such as President Barack Obama.
While lighting water on fire was the big discovery of the first film, says Fox, "What we discovered in the second film was the natural gas issue was lighting our democracy on fire. And that [the industry’s] influence at every level—local, state, and federal—was literally taking the democracy away from the people." Which is something Fox deems "every bit as shocking as watching people light their water on fire. Of course, we have more people lighting their water on fire in the [new] movie. We have bigger and better explosions, and that’s a prerequisite for any sequel."
Here, Fox lays out how he persisted in exposing the truth despite mounting opposition and what we all should do to be engaged.
When he embarked on making the first film, about five years ago, Fox and his team thought they were onto something that was important but only regionally so. He had no idea that fracking would become a "marquee issue" for President Obama and even internationally. "That was not it," he says of his motivation. "It was, like, this is what I can do as a creative person to tell the story in ways that the scientists and the policy makers may be trying to tell the same story, but they don’t do it with a human face. That’s something that only film can do. For me as a storyteller, that was my contribution."
He didn’t think that, as he says, 50 million people in 30 countries would view the first film. "Which is incredibly unusual for a documentary. Especially a documentary that is about something that is so devastating. I think that’s not due to the documentary. I think it’s a good movie; both of them are really good movies. I take great pride in that, but Citizen Kane couldn’t have made a movement like what we’re seeing."
Before getting into documentary film, Fox worked in theater. "My teacher, Ann Bogart, used to say—she was talking about actors—she would say that a person is defined by how ferociously they attack the obstacle and how many differentiated ways they attack the obstacle. In that regard, we’ve had our share of creative energy because there have been a lot of obstacles." And yet, he finds strength in all the people who are battling the same forces. "There is a movement of hundreds of thousands of people that I encounter every day, and that is one of the most astounding, amazing, creative, life-affirming, and positive experiences that a person can have, to get involved with their community. In this case, it’s a community that’s all over the world, to try to get together and make the world a better place. That’s the best thing you can do with your time."
"This is very difficult, and it is extraordinarily upsetting to watch our government fall apart in the face of oil and gas pressure, to talk to people who have had serious health effects because of the drilling all over their property, to look at the ruined spaces that this industry has destroyed. But when you look at the construction and tampering with and dismantling of democracy by this industry and the media, the alternative is much more threatening. The alternative is much scarier. My friend, Calvin Tillman, the [former] mayor of Dish, Texas, [likes to say], ‘Once you know, you can’t not know.'
"Once you know, you have to get active. And there are two possibilities. One is that you can be depressed, anxious, and worried at home alone, or you can go out there and work on it. That is the way forward. That is what will actually make life better. Even better than if you hadn’t known about this."
"I am not an organized person," says Fox. "I cannot organize a sock drawer. I am disorganized. I can make a movie, so I decided to make a movie. There are people out there that are really good organizers, there a lot of people that are amazing graphic designers, and they are people out there who are just incredibly personable and love to talk to people.
"What I do think, in this moment, in so many avenues of our lives, whether it’s the banking crisis or food, or it‘s the fuels that we’re burning and using. I think we have to start to reserve a little bit of time in the week for civic engagement. You can spend that however you want. It doesn’t have to be on one issue; it can be on a whole variety of a different issues.
Fox says that right now democracy is not going to be about showing up and voting in November. "Democracy now has to be a little bit more participatory. It doesn’t have to be like taking your medicine, you can find a way that this is wonderful. This shouldn’t just also be click through. It can’t be where you just click a box and you feel like, ‘I’m okay.'"
"I think Americans get a bad rap for being individualistic and driven by money," he says. "But I don’t think that’s what drives us. I think what drives us is a collective responsibility and a very strong sense of individual rights. I think Americans love a challenge. I love the idea of having to innovate and I love the ability to get up and go. In a sense, to live meaningfully or to have meaningful work is one of the best things you can ask for. I feel fortunate to have a role to play [in that]. Sometimes things are hard and that’s what makes them worthwhile."
Fox says that the issue of climate change has made the concept of "my backyard" obsolete. "There is really nobody’s backyard anymore, not with climate change, not with the huge amount of territory they’re aiming for. The gas industry cannot control where their contamination goes. Even still, you shouldn’t be allowed to contaminate your own property. I don’t think people feel that’s what they’re signing up for. The gas industry is very clear in their science that these wells leak. The gas industry is very clear in their investment documents, when asking people to be investors in this craziness, they say, ‘Oh, and by the way there’s a chance of water contamination, well failure, and blowouts, and you should be aware of these liabilities.' When they go to the landowners to sign them up, they say nothing of that. In fact, they say exactly the opposite. They say, ‘Oh, you may have heard that there’s water contamination. Oh, you may have heard that there’s this kind of poison. None of that is true.’ They go out on people’s lawns and their front porches and in their publications and straight up obscure and lie and then employ deceitful tactics. One of the things that we’re trying to do is just say, ‘You should really take a deeper look at this.'"
[Images Courtesy of HBO]