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When the Promised Land becomes Lost Land
by Shelly Schoeneshoefer

One of the hottest topics in America is fracking. Many people haven’t got a clue what it is about but they do believe it will save the American economy. In fact, it could be the next gold rush for some of those who own the right piece of land. So when Promised Land directed by Gus Van Sant landed among the Competition films at the Berlinale, many of us who had seen Syriana, had great hopes that this film would make a strong statement.

The Global Company salesman Steve Butler (Matt Damon) rolls into the quiet community with his side-kick Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) ready to buy up drilling rights. To his surprise, the community is well informed through a local school teacher. Due to the lack of money, many people in the community are not unwilling to sell their rights. So, in the end, the community is split, forcing Global to send in an undercover agent playing an environmental activist. He cleverly toys with the political issues until no one knows which side is up.

At the beginning, Promised Land flowed with a strong sense of how it will play out, but somehow along the way it was reduced to a muddy pond. In fact it clearly gives the feeling that somebody didn’t have the guts to say what they think. Strangely enough, Matt Damon at the press conference even mentioned that he did receive political pressure during the filming of this project. He finally said that fracking was just a side issue. How can that be? A side issue that will save the American economy but at the same time takes dangerous risks with our health! And even so, what was the real issue of this movie? Was the film trying to say that everyone has an opinion and as a community we should talk things over?  Is that how rural politics work and why it is so easy for giant companies to come in and take what they want? Even director Gus Van Sant explained in an apologetic way that he came on board late so perhaps that was why this film didn’t bring a strong message to the table.

I have to say that I was extremely disappointed with this film. I come from Colorado, a state that has a lot of potential for the fracking industry. Colorado has chosen to resist fracking, even to fight against it. Activists have been battling against the drilling since before 2008. They even won a major victory against the industry in 2008, but somehow the industries were allowed to side step it and continue drilling. There have already been reports of air quality problems which have been caused by hazardous gases escaping into the air from the drilling. The fight is still going on. At the end of Promised Land, the citizens are allowed to vote for what they want but, as one journalist from Mexico put it, where in the world do people get to vote like that? When the industry wants to build a dam, they just move the people. When they want to drill, the people can stand there and watch or get evicted.

If anyone is interested in the question of fracking, take a look at the most recent National Geographic magazine which explains what it is, as well as the hazards to be faced. What exactly is fracking? It is a process of drilling down before a high-pressure water mixture hits the rock and then releases the gas which allows it to flow out to the head of the well. Several things are injected at high pressure: water, sand and chemicals. The process is carried out vertically or, more commonly, by drilling horizontally to the rock layer. The process can create new pathways to release gas or can be used to extend existing channels. There are lots of contamination and environmental problems which can follow this procedure. The question we should be asking ourselves is: which is more important: the economy or the environment in which we live.