Frozen River Film Festival (FRFF) gave a Winona frac sand handling company its donation back this week, after the festival cut the pro-fracking film "FrackNation" from its lineup. The local company had lobbied for the film to be shown in the first place and sponsored it specifically. In explaining the unprecedented decision to cancel a film, festival organizers questioned whether the film may have been funded by the oil and gas industry, and said that filmmakers backed out of an agreement to provide a speaker to accompany the film. "FrackNation" filmmakers denied both of those claims and accused the festival of censorship.
"It's to me pretty apparent they were paid to make these movies to counter" the anti-fracking documentary "Gasland," said FRFF Board Chair Mike Kennedy. The environmentalist blog DeSmogBlog.com appears to be the main source of allegations that "FrackNation" was industry-funded. The Huffington Post also published the DeSmogBlog's accusations. Conversely, The New York Times calls the film "methodically researched and assembled," adding, it "is no tossed-off, pro-business pamphlet." A statement from FRFF explaining its decision states that "there is a growing national consensus that the film does not qualify as a documentary."
"FrackNation" filmmaker Phelim McAleer said his film is funded by grassroots donors and that news of FRFF's decision made the Irishman wonder, "What country am I living in? I thought that this was America. I thought that people actually appreciated dissent."
FRFF originally planned to show "FrackNation" back-to-back with anti-fracking film "Gasland II," with a community discussion to follow. Organizers previously said they hoped it would spur people to consider different views about fracking and the locally-mined frac sand used in the controversial process. The screening is being replaced by a community forum entitled "Documentaries Today: My Fact Your Fiction," which organizers describe as a discussion of conflicting viewpoints in modern documentaries.
Billed as an exposé of environmentalists' exaggerations, "FrackNation" attacks claims by the anti-fracking film "Gasland," whose filmmakers attracted national attention to water quality concerns by setting tap water on fire. McAleer's rebuttal shows a "burning spring" where methane-infused, flammable ground water has existed for centuries and features rural Pennsylvania residents who support the new industry in their state.
FRFF will still be showing "Gasland II" along with other environmental films such as the anti-genetically modified crops film, "GMO OMG," which was sponsored in part by producers of GMO-free foods. Environmental films have long been a staple of FRFF and environmental issues are an explicit part of the festival mission statement, which also states, "We expose our audience to people they would never meet, to cultures they might never understand and to issues they have yet to consider."
"The film organizers seem to hate alternative points of view; they seem to want to quash diversity," countered McAleer, "which is fine if you want a zombie film festival — for zombies, by zombies."
When asked about the national consensus that "FrackNation" is not a documentary, FRFF organizers clarified that true documentaries are independently funded and said that FRFF's role model film festivals, Telluride Mountain Film and Sundance Film Festival, both snubbed "FrackNation." FRFF appears to be the first festival to approve and then cancel the showing of the film and has garnered national attention for the decision. Kennedy and other festival officials pointed to DeSmogBlog's allegations. DeSmogBlog claims connections between McAleer and conservative groups, reports from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that industry groups helped promote the film after its was made, and the fact that McAleer directed an industry-funded documentary in the past, as proof that "FrackNation" is cut from the same cloth. McAleer acknowledged that his pro-mining film "Mine Your Own Business" was funded by a mining company, but said that the film never hid its funding source from viewers. McAleer also directed a documentary criticizing Al Gore's climate change film, "An Inconvenient Truth."
By all accounts, "FrackNation" was funded via the fundraising website KickStarter. On the site, would-be donors browse pitches for start-ups and contribute capital. The profiles of all 3,000-plus donors who gave a total of $212,265 are listed on the site. Most donors gave less than $100. A handful gave over $2,000 and a single donor gave over $5,000. McAleer said his film is probably "the most transparently-funded" at the FRFF. "'FrackNation' is a film by the people, for the people," the filmmaker added.
Many of the profiles of KickStarter donors appear to belong to real people who are not working for the oil and gas industry. At least one donor appears to work at a pro-industry group. Other profiles had names like "HoosierDaddy" and "Anonymous."
"There's no way to know" whether the KickStarter donors truly represent a mass of grassroots support from normal citizens or whether many of the profiles and dollars are flowing from vested interests, said FRFF Business Director Bernadette Mahfood. She pointed out that we live in a new era where discerning fact from propaganda is increasingly difficult. "There are lots of ways to make things look one way when they're really another way," she said.
She explained that film festivals do not have an obligation to fact check everything in the films they show, but that FRFF and premier festivals worldwide seek to ensure that the films they feature are independently funded. "What we would not want to do is jeopardize our standing in the film festival world, so that we don't have really good independent documentary filmmakers wanting to send us their films," she continued. "It's not pressure from anybody, it's us judging ourselves in comparison to these other film festivals that we try to emulate."
Kennedy: no speaker, no screening
In an interview, Kennedy said that FRFF only agreed to show "FrackNation" on the condition that a film representative could attend the movie and field questions from the audience. When it became clear no speaker would be provided, FRFF staff and the board decided to cut the film entirely. "The inability of them to provide a speaker shot down our entire process," Kennedy said. "When there are divergent films being shown together, there has to be a forum, and there has to be someone — a spokesperson — for both sides."
Having a speaker for each film was the only way the forum could be conducted in an ethically correct manner, Kennedy said. Without that, "then it really puts a stopper on public debate; then it looks like we're endorsing one side or the other," he said. Kennedy continued that when dealing with contentious films, "it's not up to us to pick up one or the other to support or have a speaker for or not have a speaker for."
Kennedy acknowledged that he is an outspoken critic of the frac sand industry, but said that, personally, "I would have preferred to show it; I love public debate."
"There was talk of one of us going, but it was never conditional" to showing the film, McAleer said of coming to the festival. He criticized FRFF for giving "contradictory reasons for the cancellation" and giving into "bullying" by environmentalists who oppose the film. He called Kennedy's rationale regarding the ethical requirement for a speaker "vague."
FRFF receives funding from a variety of local businesses, organizations, and individuals, including environmental groups. Three local companies that deal with frac sand were sponsors this year: Modern Transport Terminal, Brannt Valley Excavating, and CD Corporation. Kennedy declined to confirm which company had sponsored "FrackNation." The other two industry sponsors have not been refunded, and they have expressed unhappiness, he said. Representatives from those companies did not return requests for comment prior to press time.
The "Documentaries Today: My Fact Your Fiction" forum will be held on Saturday at 10 a.m. in Winona State University's Somsen Auditorium. "Gasland II" will play in the same location at 1 p.m. that day. A full schedule can be found at frff.org. "FrackNation" clips are available online at FrackNation.com and Youtube.com.