African Cinema: We’re fracked

2014-05-25 15:00

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Pressing social issues are at the forefront of the new wave of South African documentaries and fracking is top of mind for the Karoo-born film maker Jolynn Minnaar.

Her interest was piqued when she first heard about hydraulic fracturing, the term used to describe ­blasting for shale gas under the earth’s surface.

It could, after all, provide much-needed employment to the Karoo’s poor communities and help solve South Africa’s energy crisis.

Minnaar’s new film, Unearthed, which debuts at the Encounters doccie festival next month, is the ­culmination of 23 months of interviews and research across South Africa and the US. It’s one of the most exhaustive bodies of information on the topic ­available for the public to date.

What Unearthed finds is scary. Fracking has been going on in the US for decades, and has been aggressively punted by lobby groups and government. ­Although energy companies claim that fracking has never been proven to contaminate groundwater, Minnaar’s evidence reveals a different story.

She films water in Colorado that is so saturated with methane gas, you can set it alight.

She speaks to countless Americans who were forced to have gas-venting devices called water buffaloes fitted to their water tanks so that they did not ingest dangerous chemicals.

She sees pitch-black, toxic water pouring from the taps in people’s homes and meets the many who have fallen ill with everything from arsenic poisoning to leukaemia after drilling began in their area.

The Americans’ message is unanimous. They trusted energy companies to ensure that fracking would not endanger their health, but they got duped.

At the beginning of Unearthed, Minnaar underscores how trusting the people of the Karoo are known to be. “Your word is your bond,” says long-time resident Millie Lottering.

How easily can energy companies, with their promises of money and jobs, take advantage of this trust? “The most worrying aspect is how the multinational companies at the helm have failed to properly involve the community,” Minnaar told #Trending in a phone interview.

Fracking is a complex issue for even highly educated people to understand. Minnaar found that energy companies would often use big words to talk past people, assuring them it was a completely safe ­process when, in fact, there are massive risks.

Another alarming trend shown in Unearthed is the way Minnaar’s trail in the US disappears as quickly as she tries to follow it?–?thanks to nondisclosure agreements forced on residents compensated by fracking companies.

The message that Unearthed brought home to me was that while energy companies are promising people the sun and moon, fracking still carries massive environmental and health risks to communities.

It may be a damaging, short-term solution to the huge problem of providing a sustainable source of energy to our country.

With our government having already authorised excavation licences for six to 20 wells around the ­Karoo, fracking might be in our imminent future.

The question Minnaar asks is: is this a future our country wants?

» Unearthed will be screened at the Encounters SA International Documentary Festival, which starts on June 5. Visit for details

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