This blog is part of the courses on film, art, literature, and media
given by Dr.
Hudson Moura, Toronto, Canada.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

GasLand: How Propaganda Got its Bad Name

Review of Chapter 11: “Propaganda, Activism and Environmental Nostalgia” By Claire Molloy
Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics, ed. by Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy 

By Clark Backo

Every film, whether fiction or non-fiction, tells a story. Filmmakers use films to communicate a specific message to an audience. Being able to persuade an audience to agree with a specific idea is a loose way of defining propaganda. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines propaganda as, “information, ideas, opinions, or images, often only giving one part of an argument, that
are broadcast, published, or in some other way spread with the intention of influencing people's opinions” (Propaganda Meaning). It is widely recognized throughout both scholarly discourse and mainstream society that the term ‘propaganda’ has acquired a negative connotation. In the eleventh chapter of Tzioumakis and Molloy’s “Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics,” titled “Propaganda, Activism, and Environmental Nostalgia,” Claire Molloy accounts for the term’s pejorative nature and offers a positive account of the term through cinematic propaganda. Molloy is a professor at Edge Hill University, where she teaches ‘Film, Television and Digital Media”. She is also the director of the Centre for Human Animal Studies. Her research interests focus on film, eco-media, activism, and film and politics; making her an expert in the field of study that the chapter concerns itself. Molloy centers her argument on the implications of Josh Fox’s documentary film GasLand; a film which documents the human health and environmental consequences of fracking. Molloy uses GasLand as an example of a film which uses propaganda as a call to action through a combination of cinematic environmental nostalgia and organized distribution and campaigning (Molloy, 2016). Despite the positive action GasLand has produced, it does not account for the filmmaker’s overall disregard of facts and evidence in creating the film. Molloy argues that the film is positive cinematic propaganda, however, I would argue that the film only helps affirm the pejorative use of the term ‘propaganda’ as it ultimately misinforms its audience in order to persuade and motivate action.

Molloy begins the chapter with a brief introduction which outlines Josh Fox’s documentary film, GasLand, as the focal point and evidence of her argument. Molloy argues that GasLand was an important piece of art to bring ‘fracking’ into public conversation. The term ‘fracking’ refers to the procurement of natural oil and gas through the process of drilling into the earth and injecting a water mixture at high pressure (Molloy, 2016). In her introduction, Molloy summarizes the film’s storyline as well as her own main arguments. She breaks up the latter into four main points: the first considers the overall reaction to the oil and gas crisis through the various documentary films which were released as a direct result. The second discusses Fox’s deliberate stylized approach in his making of GasLand; focusing primarily on his effective use of environmental nostalgia. Molloy’s third point centers on Fox’s distribution and campaigning strategy as an example of the importance of raising awareness. Her final point considers the the film’s received criticisms as integral to the film’s international reach. Finally, Molloy makes the chapter’s purpose clear – to expand the associations of the term propaganda beyond the negative undertones widely attached.

Molloy’s first point provides an overarching account of the film industry’s response to the energy crisis set off by the oil and gas companies. She explains that when the National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPDG) came out with a report in 2001, which identified their 3 main concerns with the United States’ impending energy insufficiency. The mentioned National Energy Policy determined that the US would have to maintain their existing energy practices (i.e. gas and oil) because any and all alternative energies would not be able to withstand their energy needs. The primary concern for the NEPDG was that they did not want to eventually have to depend on “foreign powers” (Molloy, 2016). Molloy attributes the NEPDG’s decision to ignore alternative energies a defining political moment, which would lead to the ‘energy crisis’, an increase in oil and gas excavations, and the emergence of anti-oil and gas documentary films. It should be noted that Molloy describes the fossil fuel industry, and the politics that surround it, as money hungry and unsympathetic to the consequences of fracking on the environment and the health of fracked-communities. Although her argument is not wholly false, it does take its evidence from Fox’s accounts of the crisis in GasLand. Molloy uses the film to make her argument that there are films which employ propaganda for the “greater good” and therefore the term ‘propaganda’ should not only be discussed with the assumption that it is necessarily negative. Amongst Molloy’s expansive list of documentary films which were released as a direct response to the peak oil crisis, Molloy selects GasLand to argue her point of “positive cinematic propaganda” (Molloy, 2016). Her selection, I would argue, proves detrimental to making her point as evidence in Fox’s film is greatly lacking and does little to support his message.

Molloy continues onto her second point, which focuses on Fox’s specific style of filming and editing for GasLand. She goes in depth to describe his various techniques of persuasions. Molloy argues that Fox engaged his audience on an emotional level by combining images of delocalised landscapes, personal stories of individuals affected by fracking and his own personal stories (Molloy, 2016). Molloy also explains that Fox used evidentiary visuals, such as water being set alight, in order to display the negative effects of fracking on the environment.

According to Molloy, Fox used contrasting imagery to make his point, “landscaped with an abundance of water contrasted against unhealthy contaminated water of fracked areas” (Molloy, 2016). Molloy continues on to discuss Fox’s varying types of landscape shots. On the one hand, Fox uses moving images of natural landscapes usually through the lens of a car window and sometimes on foot – creating a natural flowing visual of a healthy environment. On the other hand, Fox employs more static visuals for the fracking landscapes. Handheld and shifting between focus and blur. Both indicative of their qualities. She also describes the different types of editing tricks he uses to further clarify his message. For instance, the way in which Fox cuts between images in order to create tension between opposing sides; close ups on the Cesapeake Subcommittee on Energy and Minerals with hard lighting, which cut back and forth between wide shots of landscapes, both fracked and natural (Molloy, 2016). Molloy also discusses Fox’s narrating style, which she describes as slow, gentle and sleepy; nostalgic. She argues that his narrating voice is deliberate and separate from the voice he uses when on the phone asking for interviews with industry experts. Furthermore, Molloy contests that Fox’s exposition of being rejected interviews is a form of persuasion in itself, “in this narrative [the refusals for interviews] give the impression that something is being purposefully withheld” (Molloy, 2016). By creating uncertainty, Fox was able to demand that his audience at least question / suspect the implications of the fracking industry. However, Fox does so without much substantiated evidence. Instead, as Molloy suggests, Fox uses environmental nostalgia to emote a reaction and action from his audience. If it were not for the empathy that GasLand demands, the film would have no legs to stand on.

Molloy further discusses the power of environmental nostalgia in GasLand as she argues that Fox has made the ‘landscape’ the real victim. According to Molloy, Fox’s use of shots of long, flowing, natural landscapes, creates nostalgia for how things used to be – before fracking. Molloy then further contests that Fox’s use of delocalised landscapes helps globalize the film, widening the film’s potential audience. As Molloy explains, “the signifiers of the authentic un- fracked landscape are highly symbolic of a timeless unidentifiable pristine nature, one that is littered with referenced to an undisclosed actual place in time and space” (Molloy, 2016). Furthermore, Molloy argues that Fox uses his childhood memories of growing up in an environment free of fracking in order to evoke a greater language of nostalgia throughout the film. She uses ides from Murray and Huemann who argue that environmental nostalgia, as seen
in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, can be positive if it is able to convey a sense of hope for the future. Molloy suggests that GasLand is similar to An Inconvenient Truth in that it combines the private and the public to create a sense of environmental nostalgia (Molloy, 2016). However, she argues that GasLand does not end with a message of hope but instead, offers a possibility of shared interest in the state of the country and the environment on a global level. According to Molloy, Fox ends his film with “the possibility for collective resistance” (Molloy, 2016). Following Molloy’s argument, Fox’s documentary is still a positive call for action, and therefore, a positive affirmation of cinematic propaganda.

In Malloy’s third point, she briefly describes the importance of distribution, exhibition and campaigning for activist films. More importantly, Molloy outlines the impact that successful exhibition of activist films can have in raising awareness of worthy causes and creating international support for grassroots organizations. In the case of GasLand, Molloy explains that although the film did not have a widespread theatrical distribution when it was released in January 2010 but it was able to garner ample alternative distribution deals. For instance, Fox secured a deal with HBO, which aired the film for US television in June 2010, garnering over a million US viewers. Furthermore, GasLand was released on DVD and digital platforms in December 2010 through New Video’s Docurama division. Molloy then explains that New Video was acquired by Cinedigm, an independent content distributor, which made GasLand available on Netflix in 2012 (Molloy, 2016). Once on Netflix, GasLand’s reached an international audience. Molloy further argues that distributors have a responsibility in promoting documentaries to ensure that their messages are being heard. She also points out that Fox toured alongside the international screenings of the film, participating in Q&As and campaigning the accompanying anti-fracking grassroots organizations (Molloy, 2016). Malloy argues that GasLand’s combination of formal distribution and grassroots campaigning further underlines her argument that the film serves as an example of positive propaganda as it not only raises awareness of fracking as an issue, but also creates positive action.

Finally, Molloy discusses the reception of the film amongst both critics and supporters of GasLand. Despite there being a flood of positive feedback from activists and environmental organisations, the film garnered a lot of criticism. It is of no surprise that the fracking industry heavily criticized the film but they were not the only ones. Fellow filmmakers and highly recognized newspapers, such as the Washing Post and New York Times, criticized Fox and the
film for the many inaccuracies. Critics attacked Fox based on his lack of investigative journalism – calling him an amateur who skipped necessary steps, mainly research and evidence. Molloy notes that The Independent Petroleum Association of America’s PR operation, Energy In Depth, released a document called Debunking GasLand, outlining their concerns about the film and ultimately discrediting Fox’s authority. Nonetheless, Molloy argues that all the criticism surrounding Fox and the film actually helped to promote GasLand, furthering its reach by creating intrigue (Molloy, 2016). However, Molloy seems to have fallen into the same trap that had critics questioning Fox’s credentials as a documentary filmmaker and investigate journalism. In Molloy’s unwavering support of GasLand, she avoids going into detail about the accuracy of the accusations against Fox. It does not seem like Molloy did enough research into the claims against the film’s factual inaccuracies, or as Fox did, she chose to withhold the information. A quick google search of Josh Fox and GasLand gives way to article after article questioning Fox’s lack of evidence and discrediting the film altogether. For instance, one journalist discovered that people were able to light their water on fire before fracking ever even started, as early as 1936. When the journalist questioned Fox at one of the film’s screenings, asking him why he left out that information, Fox admitted that he already knew this information but that the information was irrelevant (Watts, 2011). Clearly, Fox deliberately left out information and evidence in order to create a simple storyline to benefit his message.

In conclusion, Molloy does not account for the fact that documentary film, just like fiction film, still carries a bias. Documentary films are told from the perspective of a filmmaker and therefore, the message of a non-fiction film does rely on a filmmaker’s opinion as the focal point to which a message is told. No matter how small the bias, it is still there. Molloy’s argument for positive cinematic propaganda is persuasive and alluring, however, the use of a different example would have strengthened her argument. I agree that documentary films, and even fiction films, have the power to inspire action amongst audiences but with that power comes responsibility. Molloy describes Fox’s ability to globalize the film through delocalised landscapes, using environmental nostalgia, as a positive, however, it also ignores the fact that fracking laws are different outside of America. Fox uses his film as a call to action toward an unspecific audience, but the fracking he is describing is specific to the US. Josh Fox did not do his due-diligence to accurately inform his audience. He made his audience aware of what he wanted them to know and ignored any evidence to the contrary. Therefore, GasLand could and should be considered an explanation of how the term ‘propaganda’ developed a pejorative connotation. 

Molloy, C. (2016). "Propaganda, Activism and Environmental Nostalgia." In Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics. London: Routledge.
Propaganda Meaning. (n.d.). Retrieved March 13, 2017, from
Watts, A. (2011, June 04). The Gasland Movie: A Fracking Shame. Retrieved March 15, 2017, from shame-director-pulls-video-to-hide-inconvenient-truths/

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