Do Oscar Nominations Influence Environmental Movements, Policies? Go Gasland!

Most viewers will probably tune in to the 2010 Academy Awards to see whether obsessive black swans come home to roost or a Dude and a 14-year old girl have managed to resurrect the great Western film. But here at Ecocentric Headquarters, we'll be watching for the documentary features, a category with outstanding nominees like Wasteland, Restrepo and Inside Job. But we're rooting for the one that has been making big waves in spite of its smaller profile, Gasland, the 2010 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize winner and the work of writer/director Josh Fox. As my colleague Robin wrote in her review last year, Gasland follows Fox on a personal journey to find out what costs might result from his taking the $100,000 a natural gas company was offering to drill on his land.

Gasland becomes a quest to uncover and record potential problems behind the controversial natural gas technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Ecocentric has diligently tracked the issue’s rapid expansion, yet fracking has just begun entering America’s public consciousness.

Numerous other documentary films with a strong ecological message have been nominated for Academy Awards in past years. Some have won. What do the awards say about the environmental movement? Does an Oscar nod bode well for the future of life on this planet? Here, a look Eco-Doc Nominees Past.

An Inconvenient Truth

Almost inarguably, the most influential eco-doc was the 2006 Best Documentary Oscar winner, An Inconvenient Truth (AIT). Grossing over $49 million worldwide, it put forth a straightforward message that human actions – particularly the many that involve the burning of fossil fuels, affect the natural environment. Presenting this message as a lecture (before Glenn Beck stole the idea) primed the audience to engage actively yet reflectively. Certainly it helped that former U.S. Vice President, Al Gore, who won a Nobel Peace Prize based in part on his role in the film, was the star lecturer.

How much controversy can a documentary generate? On February 1st, natural gas industry mouthpiece Energy in Depth, sent a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences claiming that Gasland should be ineligible for a Best Documentary Oscar due to inaccuracies. Hot stuff!

An Inconvenient Truth’s real impact was that it moved the issue of human-induced global warming and attendant climate change from the margins into the mainstream American conversation. While polling over the past decade has shown mixed results about whether or not the American public accepts climate change, the subsequent discussion hasn’t diminished. Additionally, at the time, AIT was a catalyst for serious effort on comprehensive climate solutions, which seems to have waned after the failure of the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen and further disappointment with the 2010 Senate death of The American Clean Energy and Security Act. On the international climate change front, though, things were looking slightly more hopeful after last December’s talks in Cancun.

Food, Inc.

Another eco-doc heavy hitter was 2009 nominee Food, Inc. (FI). While its box office numbers didn’t touch An Inconvenient Truth, Food, Inc.’s impact was deep and wide, if only for the mere fact that everyone who saw it eats food, and is thus affected directly by its production. But FI’s real kicker lay in sympathy: for the chicken farmers caught in inescapable debt loops with Big Poultry, for the mother whose toddler died from E. coli, for ourselves and our fellow Americans, for being all but forced to comply with a system that would allow such things to happen.

While FI showcased the good food movement, too, and featured some of our favorite talking heads, including Eric Schlosser, who co-produced, and Michael Pollan, it lacked the singular star power – and the novelty of a world figure starring in a film, even a documentary – that made AIT such water cooler perfection. Certainly its timing was impeccable, considering the increased amount of time food – in all its glory and all its faults – has spent in the spotlight these last few years. Did FI help set the table for the landmark passage of the 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act? (Is it to blame for GE alfalfa? Just kidding.) In any case, people continue to eat it up.

The Cove

In 2009, The Cove, won the Oscar for Best Documentary, albeit with a very different focus from the typical eco-doc and a relatively small ticketed audience. The film used an investigative approach to capture the secretive and shocking practice of driving bottlenose dolphins to eventual confinement and slaughter in a secluded cove near Taiji, Japan. The barbarity of the hunt, the documentary’s thriller-like suspense and its dramatic techniques set it apart.

The film’s images, like that of the bloody red cove witnessed after a dolphin massacre, are shocking, and it’s no wonder the film touched off a worldwide outcry against inhumane treatment of cetaceans. The fact that local kids were served mercury-tainted dolphin meat as part of the Taiji school lunch program provoked a strong reaction from viewers as well. But in spite of an international uproar, the trade in dolphins for meat as well as entertainment specimens is lucrative enough for the Taiji fishermen to continue their hunting custom and they do, even in the face of global criticism, although dolphin meat is no longer on the school lunch menu.

So, Do the Oscars Reflect Social and Environmental Justice Movements, or Not?

Yes and no.

The commonality between all these celebrated documentaries is the arrival of their subjects in the public consciousness and the incitement of mainstream public outcries for action. In providing greater knowledge about their respective issues, the films helped generate the public clamor necessary to place those issues onto the agenda of society’s experts, change makers and influential policy wonks. Art can open public space for dissent, debate and change.

Showing just how much controversy a documentary can generate, on February 1st a natural gas industry mouthpiece, Energy in Depth, sent a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences claiming that Gasland should be ineligible for a Best Documentary Oscar due to inaccuracies. Hot stuff!

Maybe Gasland will win the Oscar and become a dynamic change factor in American society forcing us take a harder look at fracking, water contamination and fossil fuel extraction and use. Maybe a win will help galvanize public opinion and rally support for a major piece of legislation – like the FRAC Act – that would amend the Safe Drinking Water Act and assign authority over fracking to the EPA. Maybe there are other things that a Gasland win could do to protect citizens' health, water, land and air from fracking as an understudied process. Or maybe it already has.

Regardless, I am envisioning Joan Rivers sidling up to Josh Fox on the red carpet on Oscar night and hearing her ask, “What are the ramifications of lightly regulated or unregulated “produced” fracking water with regards to its disposal and reuse?”

But probably, concerned eco-citizens will have to live instead with that tired old red carpet question: “So, who are you wearing?

What affect did any of these documentaries have on you? Did they evoke sympathy or start a conversation? Any policy implications we forgot?

Please, talk amongst yourselves using the Comment Section.