ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The natural gas industry has spent months attacking the documentary “Gasland” as a deeply flawed piece of propaganda. After it was nominated for an Oscar, an industry-sponsored PR group asked the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to reconsider the film’s eligibility.
The reply: Let Oscar voters have their say.
“We do not have the resources to vet each claim or implication in the many (documentary) films that compete for our awards each year, and even if we did there would be no shortage of people disputing our conclusions,” Bruce Davis, the academy’s executive director, wrote in a reply obtained by The Associated Press.
“Gasland” is up for best documentary at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony. Director Josh Fox’s dark portrayal of greedy energy companies, sickened homeowners and oblivious regulators has stirred heated debate among the various stakeholders in a natural gas boom that is sweeping parts of the U.S. The film has galvanized anti-drilling activists while drawing complaints about its accuracy and objectivity.
In a letter to the academy, Lee Fuller, the executive director of an industry-sponsored group named Energy In Depth, called “Gasland” an “expression of stylized fiction” with “errors, inconsistencies and outright falsehoods.”
He asked the academy to consider “remedial actions” against the film.
Davis, the executive director, wrote to Fuller that if the academy were to act on every complaint made about a nominated film, “it would not be possible even to have a documentary category.” He said the academy must “trust the intelligence of our members” to sort out fact from fiction.
“If facts have been suppressed or distorted, if truth has been twisted, we depend on them to sniff that out and vote accordingly,” he wrote.
The letter was given to the AP by Energy in Depth, whose spokesman, Chris Tucker, said the group had no expectation that “Gasland” would actually be disqualified from Oscar consideration. The point, he said, was to educate academy voters.
“I think it’s a fairly good bet that a large majority of the folks who are going to be voting on this film don’t have a background in petroleum engineering,” quipped Tucker, who put together a 4,000-word rebuttal of “Gasland” last summer.
Fox said the industry’s campaign against “Gasland” has backfired.
“What they’re doing is calling more attention to the film, so I think it works against them,” the director said from Los Angeles. “But I think it shows how aggressive they are, how bullying they are, and how willing they are to lie to promote the falsehood that it’s OK to live in a gas drilling area.”
The documentary category is no stranger to controversy. Michael Moore films like “Bowling for Columbine” and “Sicko,” as well as Al Gore’s 2006 global-warming tale, “An Inconvenient Truth,” have likewise been attacked as biased and inaccurate.
Like Moore, Fox defends his film as accurate. But he rejects comparisons to the bombastic, ideological director.
“What they’re trying to do is make (’Gasland’) look like a liberal, elite, Michael Moore thing, which of course it isn’t. It’s bipartisan,” he said.
Fox, a 38-year-old New York City theater director, took an interest in drilling after a gas company approached him in 2008 about leasing his family’s wooded 20-acre spread in Milanville, near the Delaware River in northeastern Pennsylvania, where he has lived off-and-on since childhood.
Camera in hand, he went on a cross-country tour of places where large-scale drilling is already under way, interviewing residents who say they were sickened by nearby drilling operations and aiming his lens at diseased livestock and flammable tap water that he also blames on gas industry malfeasance.
Though it had a tiny theatrical run, Fox has taken “Gasland” on the road for screenings in more than 100 towns and cities throughout the U.S., England and Australia. It has also aired on HBO.
“The point was to get the film to the people who needed it most, who were in the middle of making these decisions” on whether to lease their land for drilling, Fox said.
Fox isn’t the only Oscar nominee critical of natural gas drilling. Mark Ruffalo, who was nominated for the supporting actor award for “The Kids Are All Right,” lives in upstate New York, where there’s a fierce debate over gas extraction, and has emerged as a high-profile anti-drilling activist.
Energy In Depth’s Tucker said he plans to watch Sunday’s Academy Awards telecast, but doesn’t think the award ceremony will be the end of the discussion.
“If it wins the Oscar, the conversation continues on,” Tucker said. “If it doesn’t win the Oscar, the conversation continues on.”