Promised Land

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(379)

Director Gus Van Sant,

Release date: 19 April

Steve Butler is an up and coming leasing agent for Global Crosspower Solutions. In the opening scene in an opulent restaurant Crosspower's chief financial officer boasts that the company is worth $9 billion. Steve has been selected for a special assignment: he is to purchase all the leases for gas drilling in a strategically important part of rural Pennsylvania - and get the town's assembly to approve it.

Steve really believes in what he's doing. He thinks that the fracking industry offers a way out of poverty for many rural communities. In reality fracking - a method of extracting natural gas from below ground - has become notorious for the ecological disasters it inflicts on communities near drilling sites.

Steve soon travels to the small town of Mckinley, with its rolling hills, thickly wooded glades, white clapboard houses, and flannel-shirted farmers driving old pickup trucks. It is a world for which Steve has little sympathy. And yet the skillful and subtle cinematography reinforces the key message of the story - these bucolic images belie a rural America which is dying through collapsing farm incomes, boarded up shops and rural poverty.

One by one we are introduced to the main characters of this one street town. Sue Thomason, Steve's leasing partner, is a middle-aged single parent whose main concern is to make enough money to pay for her son's college education.

Sue and Steve develop relationships with the locals, and each of these relationships helps develop the film's key themes - from local corruption, to America's oil dependency and even the fallout from the Iraq war. In doing so, the film raises a number of important questions. What is the nature of the crisis affecting rural America? Could fracking offer a solution to this crisis? Perhaps unsurprisingly, a film of this kind can't offer any real answers.

Steve and Sue visit family farms to get their owners to sign up for the leases. They play on the farmers' fears for their children's future, with the lack of educational opportunities in the town's underfunded education system.

But many of the farmers don't buy the false promises of the fracking industry. This skepticism is best articulated through Frank Yates, the science teacher at the local high school. The film focuses in on the various tactics Sue and Steve employ to counteract the propaganda from Dustin who appears to work for Athena, an environmental NGO.

All isn't what it appears to be as Sue and Steve are mere pawns in a wider game, being manoeuvered in a cynical manner to get the desired outcome for the company.

What we are presented with in this film is a rural America in crisis: family farms which can't make ends meet; parents not being able to afford a good education for their children; and the closing off of the normal escape routes from the poverty of a rural America reeling from the hammer blows of Walmart, industrial farming and the fracking industry.

Make no mistake: this is a film the fracking industry is going to hate. It is also happens to be a great film. It would make a good starting point for debating the fracking industry, especially if viewed alongside the Gas Lands, a documentary about the fracking industry.

As the company's chief financial officer says in the opening scene, "It's not nice...it's numbers".