Tuesday 13 April 2021

Halting the diggers: "Groundswell"

We've had one or two other things on our mind, of course, but it's been a while since we had an old-school eco-doc to mull over. A decade in the making, Johnny Gogan's Groundswell is a film with clear precedent in GasLand, Josh Fox's Oscar-nominated 2010 record of the deleterious effects of fracking on the Pennsylvania landscape and population; Gogan acknowledges as much early on by excerpting the still-jawdropping setpiece in which one of Fox's interviewees takes a lighter to his gas-infused tap water with explosive results. Gogan's interest lies in how Fox's film became a rallying tool for Irish communities engaged in their own struggles to fend off companies with their eyes on the vast natural gas reserves bubbling away beneath the rolling hills on either side of Ireland's internal border. A former Green Party candidate who's segued into filmmaking as a means of extending the reach of his arguments, Gogan sees fracking as "the scraping of the fossil-fuel barrel", and a development that would fly in the face of all credible scientific evidence around climate change. Groundswell means to celebrate how communities in the South fended off these vultures (at least for the time being); yet their story is revisited here with an eye to the situation in the North, where the land is reportedly still under threat, in part because a different set of laws apply, doubly so post-Brexit. (Among the film's featured players, shown prevaricating as to fracking's ultimate safety: one Arlene Foster, erstwhile Minister for Enterprise and Investment.) Who'd have thunk that an area currently under the jurisdiction of Boris Johnson's Tory government might face the risk of being sold downriver?

As an independently produced documentary, the film has a few, forgivable rough edges: plainly, there's far less money in protecting this land than there is in carving it up. But Gogan's good with people, and here's where Groundswell starts to offer its own rewards. He talks to residents from what would appear radically different points on the political spectrum - hardened, practical farmers, concerned healthcare professionals, a bohemian playwright-sculptor couple with the most extraordinary-looking cafetiere - and teases out both how they came to be involved in this grassroots resistance movement, and how they recruited others. This carries the filmmaker into community hubs with evocative names like the Mayflower and the Rainbow Ballroom - places with a strong local tradition, where people have traditionally gathered to thrash out the issues of the day. Gogan's record of the many public meetings called to address the fracking issue offers a striking firsthand illustration of democracy in action, along with a salutary lesson for the mainland Left in overcoming internal differences to combat a common foe; the whole film demonstrates a natural born politician's gift for reframing an issue, joining diverse dots. Economy flights to the US connect the filmmaker with scientists and activists who share the data that emerged in Gasland's wake; having re-energised his leftier audience, he then shifts back towards the centre, showing how setting aside land for fracking is bad for the more established practice of cattle farming. If the drama is tangled up with the ins and outs of Irish politics, Gogan makes those involving, and he knows how and where votes are won. More importantly yet for the film, he grasps the importance of images, especially when it comes to countering what the politicians and lobbyists are telling us. (That's why he repeats that fiery clip from Gasland: the closest to a meme this subgenre has generated, the most spectacular demonstration yet that fracking probably isn't the best idea for those of us who don't stand to profit from it.) Even the sporadic drone shots, a modern docucliché, assume a political dimension, while flooding the screen with green. Why would anyone with heart, soul or eye for natural beauty want to rip any of that up?

Groundswell will be available to stream from Friday via independent cinemas.

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