Unearthing the horrific

Marta Owczarek hails Jolynn Minnaar's documentary on the impact of shale gas fracking on local communities despite the film's stylistic shortcomings

, 27 October 2014

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We’ve all heard about fracking (called officially “hydraulic fracturing”), and a lot of us will have heard reasons for it to to be stopped. Big energy companies point out that the technology has been around for decades, but it’s only recently that fracking started to crop up everywhere, described as a threat, a contributor to climate change and an act against sustainability (in left-leaning media, at least). But that can be said about anything, from eating meat and driving cars to space programs. Why is fracking the public enemy of the day?

Jolynn Minnaar, director, cinematographer, photographer, writer and communications strategist from South Africa, knew very little about fracking when energy companies started talking about introducing the gas extraction method to her native region of the Karoo. This is where her investigative documentary Unearthed (Zootee Studios/Stage 5 Films, 2014) begins – in a rural, peaceful area barely touched by civilisation. We see panoramic shots of the beautiful, sun-soaked landscape and the daily lives of the people who inhabit it – farmers and their families, who are shown as honest and trusting, living off the land and decidedly not prosperous. Discussing the opportunities that fracking might bring, some are willing to give it a go in hope of making their lives better.

The filmmaker becomes an activist rather than investigator and “can’t seek refuge behind the camera” anymore

Interviews with local people are interspersed with snippets of TV footage advocating for the benefits of fracking. At this stage the documentary is trying to play devil’s advocate, showing the potential benefits that shale gas extraction can bring. The cinematography is permeated with an ominous sense : long, steady, wide shots of nature and people who live close to it juxtaposed with quick, sharp cuts between different people in suits giving televised speeches, looped to instantly generate anxiety.

After the slow-paced introductory half hour, Minnaar’s film jumps on the rails of a detective story – she receives a phone call from the States, from a person whose property in Pennsylvania is being contaminated by a nearby fracking operation. We see official letters, reports and email exchanges; they all spell disaster. Minnaar gets on a plane to investigate. She documents her journey thoroughly, so we get plenty of shaky camera action, filming what’s not supposed to be filmed (camera facing away, pretending not to register, “no pictures please” heard in the background). The atmosphere is heavy with secrets and danger.

En route Minnaar talks to people. Some have accepted the drilling happening in the area as the inevitability that comes with ‘progress’, some even got temporary jobs out of it. But the crushing majority gives evidence of contamination and disease. The local water is so high in methane it burns. The person who set the investigation in motion has disappeared and their property is taken over by an energy company. Minnaar finally manages to reach them on the phone – only to hear that they are not comfortable discussing anything related to their initial call and present situation, beyond a dystopian-sounding affirmation that “life is different”. Minnaar isn’t discouraged and continues digging around in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Colorado and, as the tagline of the film goes, “the deeper you dig the darker the secrets.”

t’s like we’re witnessing the uncovering of an evil conspiracy reaching all the way to the highest power ranks and see the human tragedies behind it

The documentary changes pace yet again, from the frantic detective story to a more measured investigation. She talks to scientists, doctors, congressmen and ordinary people who were affected by fracking. Her findings expose the carefully constructed PR statements from Shell and other companies in whose interest it is to push fracking as intentional misinformation, an ill-willed cover-up. As fracking gets approved in South Africa, Minnaar comes across more and more people on the East Coast who have signed non-disclosure agreements, some who agree to speak but not show their face, even an official who lost her job as a result of answering questions too honestly. It’s like we’re witnessing the uncovering of an evil conspiracy reaching all the way to the highest power ranks and see the human tragedies behind it. At some point the filmmaker becomes an activist rather than investigator and “can’t seek refuge behind the camera” anymore. A clear turning point is when one of Minnaar’s interviewees becomes too upset to speak. Minnaar leaves the camera on, walks into the frame, hugs the woman and holding her, begins crying too.

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Minnaar’s investigation is compelling, convincing and powerful. She balances expert opinions and personal stories well. Once back to the Karoo, she interviews the Managing Director of Shell South Africa, confronting him with what she found out about fracking in the States. Throughout the film, but particularly once she becomes her own subject, she’s brave, she’s honest, she’s genuine – maybe even a bit too close to the bone. She cries in front of the camera again towards the end of the film, now alone in the centre of the shot: “Sometimes a story finds you, you see too much and can’t go back, can’t forget. I have the responsibility to tell it now. I’m a different person.”

I believe Minnaar. However, her transformation from investigative filmmaker to advocate of the people breaks some rules, and not always in a good way. As a result the film is uneven, part outsider and part insider perspective. Perhaps it’s Minnaar’s way of saying we are all involved, whether we like it or not, but the lack of consistency can be off-putting. Neutral voiceover and descriptive facts and figures are mixed with a very emotionally charged soundtrack and lots of footage of children, an ostentatious symbol of purity and innocence that is being threatened. On more than one occasion Minnaar asks leading questions, effectively pre-empting the answers. Her framing of the fracking victims and the people of the Karoo who might become them is dangerously close to a saviour narrative or exploitation for the benefit of the viewer who has no choice but to be moved. At the same time, what other way is there to show the horrific injustice she encounters? Minnaar is, in the end, a filmmaker who doesn’t have the answers – just the questions and the power to start conversations. And it is true what she says: “it falls on communities to show the impact.”

Unearthed is showing at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (London) on 30 October, followed by a Q&A with director Jolynn Minnaar. Get your tickets here.

Pictures are the stills from the film, courtesy of DocHouse.

Marta Owczarek is a writer and campaigner based in London. She tweets as @martalucysummer

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