Last week, Buffalo was the stage for a screening of "Truthland," a film financed by the Independent Petroleum Association of America. As Daniel Robison reports, the event highlighted how starkly polarizing the topic can be for the public.
Before the house lights dimmed, the crowd at the western New York premiere of "Truthland" was told to be quiet and respectful. Any catcalls or outbursts were promised to warrant an ejection. However, the warning failed to stop many in the crowd from laughing at scenes not meant to be funny. The presence of three police officers in bulletproof vests pacing the periphery of the theater eventually muffled some of the giggles and dissent, allowing the movie to play mostly uninterrupted.
The narrator and main subject of "Truthland" is Pennsylvania dairy farmer Shelly DePue, who tells the audience she has a hydrofracked well on her Susquehanna County property. While the gas well is already present on her farm, DePue expresses a desire to scour the country to ask experts questions about the safety of fracking and if her family is at risk.
“If the real answers were scary, then so be it! At least we’d know what we were up against,” DePue narrates over idyllic video of the rolling hills and serene ponds on her dairy farm. The audience never sees DePue's hydrofracked gas well.
"Truthland" presents itself as a documentary. Yet some scenes are scripted and others simulate events that DePue’s narration portray as unrehearsed reality. For most of the film, the audience sees DePue driving her Chevy around the country, interviewing academics and officials - spiral notebook in hand - to learn once and for all the “truth” about fracking.
This quest for truth stems from her family’s value system, she says. “I’m not an engineer, a scientist, or a gas driller. I’m just a Pennsylvania mom," DePue says, in a folksy tone. She adds, “What was the truth? The real truth? That’s how we came to make this little movie.”
The audience is not made aware of the film’s origins and funding sources until the end credits. One the film's last title cards indicates "Truthland" was bankrolled by "natural gas companies."
The title of "Truthland" is a play on the anti-fracking film “Gasland.” That Academy Award-nominated movie famously shows people living in territory affected by fracking igniting their tap water. Much of "Truthland" tries to refute the claim that flaming faucets are the result of natural gas drilling or that drinking water is compromised by the practice.
“['Gasland'] said water contamination was a huge problem. The experts said it was not. I know which ones I believe!” DePue exclaims. She is presented as an objective, unbiased character. But as the film progresses, her scripted narration represents a pro-fracking viewpoint. The movie also makes multiple attempts to discredit the filmmaker behind "Gasland," Josh Fox.
“So much in 'Gasland' is half-true, unfairly presented or just plain false. And the way [Fox] told the story made him seem trustworthy. I was beginning to question Josh Fox’s motives,” DePue says. “[It] made me doubt the truth of the whole movie.”
After the "Truthland" screening in Buffalo, a panel of gas industry representatives gathered on stage for a question and answer session, which quickly turned hostile. Many in the crowd self-identified as anti-fracking. The event devolved into a series of shouting matches. At one point, police were asked to restore order and one officer pledged to shut down the event if behavior doesn’t improve.
Panel member John Holko, owner of oil and gas company Lenape Resources, tried to defuse the situation. "Truthland" is not a perfect movie, he asserted. Instead it’s a simplified portrait of a complex issue. Holko said, “Sometimes you have to take it to a level for people to understand. What you have is a film that was designed to take the same tact that 'Gasland' took the other way.”
But the audience expressed concerns that "Truthland" could appear to be independent to viewers unaware of its funding sources. After the panel discussion, Holko said the gas industry felt compelled to hit back after "Gasland" and director Josh Fox identified concerns with the technology. Holko has recently threatened to sue localities in New York that have enacted homerule bans on high volume horizontal hydrofracking. Even with the gas industry's public relations offensive, which includes multiple "Truthland" screenings in the northeast, the debate over fracking in New York state is far from over, according to Holko.
“Shelly’s film [depicts] a folksy girl going out to discover. It shows people there are two perspectives: Shelly’s and Josh’s,” Holko says. “What does that tell the audience? You may have your own perspective. Go out and get your answers.”
DePue came to the screening in Buffalo, but left without speaking to the crowd or media, citing an urgent need to return to her Pennsylvania farm. DePue did not respond to repeated requests for comment. As of this summer, four hydrofracked wells have been drilled on DePue's Pennsylvania property.