Culture

Film

Holding true: ‘The Truth Has Changed’

By Anne Rutherford
The ‘Gasland’ creator’s latest documentary explores misinformation

Josh Fox in The Truth Has Changed 

Josh Fox frames his film, The Truth Has Changed (2021), with a question posed to him by a teenage girl at a community screening of his influential 2010 documentary Gasland: “How do we know what’s true?” The film explores this question, and the contemporary contexts of proliferating misinformation that make it fiendishly difficult to answer.

Since the release of Gasland, Fox has realised that, as fast as activists can uncover and collate the scientific evidence of the devastation caused by fracking, the petroleum industry will swamp the internet with counter-information, attempting to undermine the credibility of the science and debunk the claims of activists.

In Gasland, Fox deployed the conventional techniques of documentary filmmaking – researching, fact-checking and presenting visual evidence – to let people see with their own eyes the truth that the fracking industry wanted to keep buried deep beneath the veneer of business as usual. Few viewers could forget the image of a landowner in Colorado turning on his kitchen tap, inching a match cautiously closer to it and then leaping back as the water explodes in a ball of flame, fuelled by the methane gas spewed up by the fracking wells that have made his water undrinkable and his air a toxic cocktail. Or the aerial photos of fracking wells stretched as far as the eye can see across the US south, turning productive rural lands into an industrial wasteland. Or the testimony of the proliferation of skin rashes, breathing difficulties and cancers that followed leaks into the groundwater of the chemicals, including neurotoxins and carcinogens, injected into fracking wells.

But how do we know these images are true? This is the central dilemma that underpins The Truth Has Changed: the recognition that the truth meticulously uncovered by journalists or documentarists no longer cuts through the tsunami of distortion and fabrication that spreads unchecked on the internet.

The potential for images to be manipulated has been a longstanding concern of documentary filmmakers. Errol Morris’ 1988 film The Thin Blue Line is often cited as a game changer in the genre, setting out as it does to deliberately sow scepticism, to destabilise viewers’ naive belief in images and to demonstrate that images are no guarantee of authenticity, interviews no arbiter of truth. Eschewing simply “showing the visual evidence”, Morris works with a more complex triangulation of evidence to find his way through the labyrinth of lies – including those that images produce – to arrive at the truth.

Things have moved on since The Thin Blue Line. This potential for images to deceive has been accelerated by digital imaging techniques that make it possible to simulate and distort images much more seamlessly, and it has been amplified by the echo chambers on social media. Doubt, so assiduously cultivated by Morris, is now weaponised by forces whose aim is not to reveal the truth but to scramble it. In his new film, Fox reveals the great lengths to which cashed-up vested interests in the fossil-fuel industry will go to sow doubt, to undermine the work of activists and to keep their revelations out of the public eye. The truth, as Fox says, has changed.

Unlike Gasland and its sequel, Gasland Part II, The Truth Has Changed does not rely on presenting documentary images to prove its case. Here Fox takes an entirely different tack. Apart from a few small interludes of archival footage, the film is a solo performance piece, shot in a direct address to camera, with Fox framed as a lone figure engulfed in the empty black space of an industrial warehouse. In part this theatrical staging is a response to COVID-induced isolation, and the form of the film is a perfect match for this moment. The staging is also a response to Fox’s realisation that the “truth” – of images, of evidence­ – has failed. The two-hour film is shot almost entirely as a dramatic monologue, showing a shadowy close-up of Fox against the black screen, which is occasionally dramatised by a wash of colour that floods the backdrop in an emotional echo of his words. Fox is a masterful storyteller, moving the narrative across anecdotes, varying emotional beats and changes of pace with great skill. To sustain a direct address to camera almost uninterrupted for two hours is a feat of concentration, and this staging rivets the viewer into a compelling intimacy that we would never have on a live stage. He performs alone, he says, but this is intended as a dialogue with the audience. There is no recourse to visual back-up here – this is testimony, and Fox stands on the power of his witness.

The Truth Has Changed recounts the aftermath of Gasland, and the repercussions following its success. No longer the young innocent picking up a camera to save his childhood idyll on the Delaware River in New York State, Fox has been delivered a cold, hard reality check since Gasland. He has been subjected to smear campaigns, character assassination, death threats, intimidation and doxxing. Community screenings of Gasland have been heckled by gas-industry plants in the audience, subjected to attacks in the press fuelled by a detailed industry hit sheet on how to debunk the film, and Google searches have been taken over by attack websites and hostile links sponsored by the petroleum industry. Activists’ emails have been hacked and forwarded to people in the gas industry, and activists have been branded eco-terrorists. Fox recounts how the gas moguls, in a momentary indiscretion, revealed that they had hired psy-ops personnel returned from Iraq to destabilise activist communities, using military techniques for warfare and counterinsurgency to disrupt the community resistance to fracking.

An industry does not attempt to kneecap its opponents if it does not perceive a threat, and threat there was. The “Gasland effect” was powerful and widespread. The film was nominated for an Academy Award and toured to over 350 cities. Screenings of the film took the anti-fracking movement from a few local grassroots rumblings to an international avalanche of activism. As the understanding of the dangers of fracking – and resistance to it – gained traction, and as activists began to obstruct the global expansion of coal seam gas and shale gas extraction, the gas industry rolled into action with a campaign of misinformation.

Few documentary films could claim such a powerful and pervasive effect as Gasland can. In the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, where plans were afoot for fracking around Bentley, local screenings of Gasland prompted grassroots resistance that gained so much popular support that the state government was forced to suspend the gas company’s drilling licence and eventually buy back all the exploration and drilling licences for the area. An award-winning documentary film of this struggle, The Bentley Effect, screened across the world and became a training manual for how communities everywhere could use non-violent protest to resist the fracking industry’s power. Screened in Alice Springs, The Bentley Effect alerted locals to the risks of the proposed shale gas extraction in the Northern Territory and sparked a campaign in opposition to fracking in the Beetaloo basin.

Fox’s third film, How to Let Go of the World and Love Everything That Climate Can’t Change, tracked the development of such activist movements across the globe in the face of almost insurmountable challenges. In Australia, he joined the Pacific Climate Warriors as they paddled kayaks out into Newcastle Harbour to confront the towering coal ships whose cargo is rapidly making many Pacific Islands unliveable. The film traces Fox’s fall to the depths of despair, wanting to give up and go back to his peaceful riparian lifestyle, and then his journey towards radical hope as he discovered communities of resistance.

The same struggle between vigilance and complacency, resistance and complicity, animates The Truth Has Changed. The film is darker, much darker, than his earlier films. Fox knows now the forces amassed against the movement. Steeled by the unrelenting attacks against him personally and against the communities of resistance, the cutting edge of his investigation is sharper. His scope has broadened to encompass the history of misinformation from the 19th century, through the Vietnam War, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, to the deliberate lies of the oil industry withholding what it already knew in the 1970s about pending climate catastrophe – lies that directly mirror the now well-known strategies used by big tobacco to spread doubt about the dangers of smoking. The lens of this new film takes in the collusion of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook in the electoral success of the last US president. No longer confined to producing misinformation through traditional mass media strategies, these companies now use algorithms to process vast amounts of data on individuals and use selective advertising to target specific audiences to promote the interests of their political and industrial allies. For Fox, this is a form of toxic digital pollution and the final blow to journalism’s aim to seek truth by checking facts, scrutinising the credibility of sources, investigating deception and distortion, and promoting the scientific evidence. In the face of these challenges, he insists, communities must resist, and activists must keep organising.

So, how do we know what is true? The question of how to prove the truth amid this tornado of lies remains an urgent one for journalists and documentary makers, and there is no easy answer. The Truth Has Changed exposes just how far the fossil-fuel industry will go to undermine attempts to establish the veracity of credible science, prevent open dialogue and disrupt any community mobilisation that might compromise their profits. This is the smoking gun that we can use to triangulate the evidence and arrive at the truth behind the fabrications.  

 

The Truth Has Changed screens online until 15 March, its world premiere festival screening, as part of the Transition Film Festival.

Anne Rutherford

Anne Rutherford is a film critic and adjunct associate professor in cinema studies at Western Sydney University.

Josh Fox in The Truth Has Changed 

Read on

Serenity

Give us not serenity but a sense of urgency in the face of catastrophic climate change

Image of Cătălin Tolontan in Collective.

Bitter pill: ‘Collective’

This staggering documentary exposes institutionalised corruption in Romanian hospitals

All things considered: Emily Maguire’s ‘Love Objects’

The Australian writer’s latest novel portrays hoarding with an acute understanding of the deeply human desire to connect

Image of Antara by Betty Kuntiwa Pumani. © The artist, Mimili Maku and Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne 2021

Held in common: ‘The National’ at the MCA

Foregrounding women’s practice, this exhibition of contemporary Australian art proposes a poetics of inclusion