Produced and directed by Chanda Chevannes | 2017 | 91 minutes
The American West’s noisome export is hydrofracturing, or “fracking,” a type of geomechanical refinement whereby natural gas and petroleum are extracted from shale and other soft rock using a water-intensive cutting process. It’s now an international bugbear abetted by broad industry sway and the general ease of setting up an operation in rural areas. In eastern Kentucky, where I set much of my writing, fracking operates as a quiet corollary to mountaintop removal mining, with effects no less damaging. But the practice spans much of the Appalachian ridgeline, with shifting degrees of quiescence and resistance by local residents, depending on their awareness and, yes, their affluence.
Unfractured, which premieres November 11 at New York’s DOC NYC festival, is Canadian filmmaker Chanda Chevannes’ second film about upstate New York activist Sandra Steingraber, having previously released Living Downstream in 2010. Steingraber, a biologist by training and an author (she penned the original Living Downstream, in 1997), agitates for improved protection of her local waterways and regulation of industrial waste procedures. Taking the “think globally, act locally” truism to heart, she bullishly confronts the doublespeak of industry honchos, who gladhand the state government, and positions herself at the front of the picket line, where participants risk arrest or roughing up by the authorities. While traversing the Finger Lakes region, where oil and natural gas interests exert a scaly grip on the landscape, Steingraber organizes, stumps, and presses on behalf of smarter regulation of the industry, exhorting Governor Andrew Cuomo to do away with fracking in the state altogether. At one point, she travels to rural Romania with her son to observe a community under the yoke of a Chevron fracking operation. As the film tells it, this becomes Steingraber’s cue to escalate beyond the speaking circuit and embrace a more obstructive—and arrest-worthy—form of protest. Steingraber, a symbol of the movement, comes off as tough, competent, and transformative, very much the sort you’d want on the barricades.
And yet something of Unfractured’s ethics is off, like running a bath only to find oil oozing from the faucet, as one debate panelist in the film describes. To be sure, the documentary’s visuals are polished, and in their more intimate moments, even luminous: There’s a cozy, frosted-windowpane quality to the close-up shots of Steingraber waking before dawn, layering up, giving the usual parental directives about homework to her teenage daughter and young son, then hitting the bus with fellow activists to go raise hell. The family also contends with the care of Steingraber’s husband Jeff, felled by a series of mysterious strokes, which becomes a kind of third-rail narrative that threads the documentary and can’t quite sustain the emphasis it’s given, though it is filmed with an aching, honest closeness. Protest, at its most elemental, is to be worried about a thing, and for Steingraber worry is compounded by personal obligations that scrape at the underside of idealism—in her on-camera interviews, Steingraber frets about disappointing her children, about being rooked by the demands of real life and real change. The film’s delicate, lingering moments, whether of Steingraber pensively tending to drafts of her speeches, or submitting to the long bus rides across upstate’s frozen landscape, set the viewer up for the contemplativeness with which we are meant to venerate Steingraber, the crusader and mystic.
Curiously, the film I think would have done well to more genuinely humanize its protagonist and the cause itself. That’s not quite the same as exploring Steingraber’s interiority. Unfractured implicitly, and perhaps unwittingly, interrogates the very utility of local advocacy, its efficacy as change agent, and its virtues as a force of justice, particularly in rural areas where justice can be a commodity as precious, and scarce, as clean water. Hyperlocal movements, as depicted in Unfractured and its antecedents—such as the seminal Harlan County, U.S.A., and Gasland—must first contend with their own self-seriousness and marshal it to their advantage, lest their opponents use it to trivialize the objective. On this question, the film is at points darkly funny: when Steingraber and other protesters line up to block a delivery entrance for a fracking outfit near Seneca Lake, they anticipate a long parade of tractor trailers jamming the highway, only to watch a trickle of indifferent truckers drop off their packages on foot. (“We were hoping to get arrested today,” Steingraber tells disappointed protesters.)
It’s a stretch to pass such scenes off as struggle, which is vexing for me. Throughout the film, Chevannes is faced with a key documentarian’s choice: intimacy with the subject or more time spent credentialing her. She opts overwhelmingly for the first, affecting a kind of endangerment narrative that ends up being uncharitable to Steingraber’s long career and accomplishments, which any Google search will illuminate. In reducing Steingraber’s advocacy to precious, emotive arguments, Chevannes cheapens her real contributions to the field, and worse, affirms the energy industry’s worst caricatures of the environmentalist movement: as reductive, facile agitators, given to both self-congratulation and mythologizing.
To be sure, there is real danger to be found in this business. The coal wars of the early 20th century are a testament to the violence private industry is capable of. These days, there is far less bloodletting, but activists are routinely litigated into oblivion or intimidated into silence. Unfractured would have us believe that Steingraber’s story is another iteration of this. But her breakthroughs have been the product not of self-abnegating struggle, but of careful, strategic messaging over many years. That too is a valid pathway to victory, one that Unfractured obscures.