In the midst of national and local scrutiny for its decision to cancel the pro-fracking film "FrackNation" — including a suggestion by Winona City Council member Paul Double that the city officially denounce the decision — FRFF organizers discussed storytelling ethics and their decision to cancel "FrackNation" with festival goers.
Photo by Chris Rogers
Scores of Winonans and tourists packed Winona State University auditoriums for the Frozen River Film Festival. The moving tale of HIV-stricken children in India, "Blood Brother," won over festival patrons and judges alike, earning top honors in juried and "people's choice" contests.
Winona State University (WSU) Assistant Professor James Bowey pressed the question, "Why did you cancel the film?"
"We aren't the ones who cancelled the film; it was noncompliance with an agreement and a process that caused us to not show the film," responded FRFF Board Chair Mike Kennedy, referring to the festival's assertion that there was a verbal agreement for the filmmakers to provide a speaker.
"There was talk of one of us going, but it was never conditional" to showing the film," countered FrackNation filmmaker Phelim McAleer in a previous interview. Kennedy and FRFF Business Director Bernadette Mahfood said that McAleer denied an initial request from the festival and, when called by the local frac sand-related sponsor of the screening, McAleer offered to come for a $10,000 stipend, or honorarium, in addition to travel expenses and lodging that the festival typically pays. "We laughed," Mahfood recalled. "We're a small festival" without the resources for that, "and we just don't do that," she continued. Kennedy said that the festival has rarely paid more than $2,000 in travel expenses, room, and lodging.
When the filmmakers requested the honorarium, "that's when they lost all credibility with us," Kennedy said.
McAleer declined to respond to questions about whether he requested an honorarium. FRFF organizers acknowledged they did not have documentation of the exchange. McAleer declined to respond to any questions about the festival's decision or his actions, only issuing a written statement that "I'm not going to give the Frozen River Film Festival any credibility by engaging in a 'debate' that started by them censoring someone."
In initial statements, FRFF officials had also cited "a growing national consensus that the film does not qualify as a documentary," because it was not, they alleged, independently funded, as an additional reason for canceling the film. However, as media attention has increased, festival representatives have focused less on funding concerns and more on the lack of a speaker. The festival had not mentioned the honorarium request in prior explanations of their decision.
Bowey thanked Kennedy for his response, saying, "that question hadn't been answered completely." He still challenged the decision and suggested that the festival might have informed its audience prior to the speaker-less film that "this person couldn't be here, and this is why they couldn't be here."
"FrackNation" barely passed muster to begin with, said FRFF Director Crystal Hegge. A local frac sand handling company encouraged the festival to accept the film and specifically sponsored "FrackNation," but FRFF's film selection committee was apprehensive. "The bullying that they did to get their facts, the misrepresentation — that type of filmmaking is not what we want to support," she said. For its part, "FrackNation" is billed as a refutation of environmentalists' misrepresentations. McAleer hounded anti-frac sand "Gasland" filmmaker Josh Fox.
"At the bottom of it all you're hosting a party, and you get to choose the guests," said Telluride Mountain Film Festival board member Lance Waring of private festivals' prerogative to choose films.
Bowey criticized that sentiment in light of FRFF's dialogue-fostering mission. "The party is predicated on this plan of inclusiveness. So you can't really have it both ways," he said. "You can't say, 'Well, it's our party we can invite who we want to,' when what you really promote in the community is this idea of this inclusive dialogue of ideas."
The FRFF/FrackNation controversy captured national media attention last week, perhaps most notably with a segment on Fox News. Arguably, McAleer has received more attention because his film was cancelled than he would have garnered by attending FRFF. In a previous interview, McAleer said he would have come if he had known it would have made the difference in having his film shown. However, during the forum, Hegge criticized McAleer for using the festival controversy "as a publicity stunt for his film." Another panel member chimed in that the strategy "is actually a brilliant publicity stunt."
Meanwhile, FRFF seemed to be surprised by the national attention. Kennedy said it was challenging to run the festival while being inundated with national "hate mail" in his email inbox.
When asked by a member of the audience how the festival was trying to get its message out in the midst of the negative press, Hegge said that by prodding attendees to post on social media, the internet comments about the festival were becoming much more positive in general. When it came to addressing the controversy directly, however, Hegge said, "There's an element of feeding the trolls that we don't want to do."
Facts and documentaries
Earlier during the forum entitled "Documentaries Today: My Fact, Your Fiction," which FRFF held in place of the scheduled screening of "FrackNation," Kennedy posed the question, "Are documentaries an actuality- and reality-based medium anymore?" Forum panel members' responses were a segue between documentary ethics and the "FrackNation" cancellation.
Telluride's Waring described seeing a political documentary that swayed him, then later learning that the film misrepresented some information and heard rumors that it was industry-funded. "I don't know who to believe now. I actually feel worse than if I didn't watch the film at all," he said. "I thought, 'I don't have the truth and I'm never going to get the truth.'"
"And I'm not sure what the moral of that is except that there's this 'FrackNation' elephant in the room that we're all dancing around," he said, before others made note of the local controversy. "And had you chosen to show it with or without the speaker, it probably would have worked. You probably would have had some people who felt that it was a great film and a great idea and some people who didn't. Had you chosen, like you did, not to show it, we could have a conversation like this and talk about what's direct and what's not. I don't know the answers, but I know it's good to have the conversation."
What are the responsibilities of filmmakers and festivals? Documentaries should be factually correct, panel members seemed to concur, but the value of objectivity is a more complex issue. "No matter how objectively you try to make a film, you're shooting it in a certain way," said "The List" Director of Photography Kevin Belli. "The way you shoot it is subjective, the way you edit it is subjective, what you choose to keep out is just as important as what you choose to put in." He added, "Everything you do – no matter how objective you try to make that film — you're still leading things in the direction you intended the film to [go]."
Complicating matters, audiences come in with their own preconceived ideas; their interpretations and a filmmakers' intentions can differ greatly, Belli said. Ultimately, "It's a real hard line to navigate, the only thing you can do is be as honest as possible, be as honest as you can with the stories you're trying to tell," he added.
At the end of the day, filmmakers must stick to their guns, said Waring. "It seems to come down to integrity and your own personal sense of what is truth and what is real and what you choose to put in your film."
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