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"The Fracking Documentary: Pennsylvania, Montana, Colorado, Karoo." NEMLA Presentation

Presentation at Northeastern MLA (NEMLA) Annual Convention in Pittsburgh

This paper imagines new directions in American and postcolonial ecocriticism by examining the emergent film genre of the fracking documentary. I compare representations of rural life through the lens of fracking in two documentaries: the South African film unearthed by Jolynn Minnaar, and the American film GasLand by Josh Fox. GasLand presents the filmmaker as a East Coaster who becomes alarmed about fracking in his own backyard. He interviews concerned Pennsylvanians, then decides to travel to other communities that have experienced fracking across America. His journey renegotiates trite tropes of the westward journey while ambivalently portraying rural American life. unearthed likewise chronicles the filmmaker’s voyage through American fracking towns. But Minnaar has the different mission of imagining how fracking might affect communities in South Africa’s semi-desert, the Karoo, by exposing impacts in the technology’s country of origin, the US.

In what ways does alarm about hydraulic fracturing motivate renewed and exoticizing attention to rural areas? How does this link to the growing interest among ecocritics in urban ecologies? While bioregionalism often works as one of ecocriticism’s more retrograde strains, I argue that fracking landscapes could offer new toxified and transnational models for bioregional thought, built on anxieties about “downstream” pollution of watersheds and the degradation of rural space to serve urban energy needs. Fracking also provides new ways to narrate national identity in a post-industrial and poisoned world. I discuss this through Fox’s satirical incorporation of patriotic motifs, as well as Minnaar’s transnational negotiation of South Africa’s role in the world against a fracked American landscape.