Holy Field Holy War: FIDMarseille Review

Penetrating chronicle of rural woes and 'fracking' discontents has rather more going for it than sheer topicality.

Veteran Polish-American documentarian Lech Kowalski tackles the controversial subject of 'fracking' in a film which picked up three awards at the French festival.

Pressure steadily builds to bursting point in Holy Field Holy War, latest in a flurry of films from either side of the Atlantic to tackle the burningly controversial subject of 'fracking,' as the process of shale-gas extraction is commonly known. Part of an ongoing project on the issue by veteran Polish-American documentarian Lech Kowalski, it won three prizes when world-premiering in competition at Marseille and its partisan topicality will make it a popular pick for festivals and TV channels in any area where fracking hits the headlines: Europe, North America, and beyond.

The complex technique of "induced hydraulic fracturing" has been around since the 1940s, but it's only in the present century that it has become a big-business concern. The procedure and its opponents, who blame it for ecological devastation and hazardous pollution, have been most notably examined on-screen by Gus Van Sant in last year's tepidly-received fictional film Promised Land, and by Josh Fox in his Oscar-nominated documentary GasLand (2010) and sequel GasLand Part II, which premiered at Tribeca and on HBO earlier this year. All three of those films concentrate on Stateside areas, but while Kowalski's shorter Drill Baby Drill, also currently doing the rounds, divides its focus between the U.S. and Poland, with Holy Field Holy War the London-born, New York-raised multi-hyphenate concentrates entirely on his ancestral homeland.

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Early stretches gradually introduce us to one particular farming area, not far from the Ukrainian border in the east of the country. Here the old ways stubbornly persist -- one elderly chap is seen using a scythe on his crops -- and life unfolds at a steady, ruminative pace. There's no mention of fracking at all, the chief source of discontent among writer/director/producer/editor/cinematographer Kowalski's interviewees being the alarming encroachment of modern, industrial farming methods. This is implictly presented as part of Poland's rush to 'modernization' as a notably business-friendly member of the European Union: "the laws don't apply to them," someone sniffs, "they've even bought off the priest!"

Audaciously, Kowalski waits until after the half-way mark to introduce what will be the main subject-matter of his film, with multinational oil-giant Chevron planting innocuous little red flags across the farmland to show where preliminary test-drillings will be taking place. The degree of notification and consultation is somewhat unclear ("they told me to sign, so I signed," sighs one elderly lady), but the noisy arrival of heavy trucks in this fly-buzzingly bucolic zone triggers discontents that are unambiguously and angrily vocal. When the first drillings produce cracks not only in the earth but also in the walls of the farmers' houses, the litany of complaints recorded by Kowalski's camera -- he's clearly regarded a sympathetic, trusted, sounding-board of an interviewer -- becomes a torrent.

The final, most satisfying section of the movie sees Chevron's representative for Poland belatedly arrive for a community meeting designed to explain the company's plans and assuage residents' complaints. This smiling, corpulent individual's surprising inability to speak any Polish, and his reliance on bland corporate-speak in his presentation doom the hapless representative from the off, however, and his squirming discomfort makes for exquisitely awkward viewing. After a slow-paced hour-long set-up which has had its share of deliberate longueurs, Kowalski's probing structure finally strikes a truly rich seam with this explosive encounter.

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He shows how this scattered community can be brought together against a common 'enemy', and also implicitly poses pertinent questions about local democracy in an age of increasing trans-border corporate power ("Why didn't anyone ask us?!" one farmer stridently demands.) Kowalski's bias towards David over Goliath is never in doubt, the director having, since his earliest days chronicling the New York punk scene, been drawn to underdogs and outsiders, the marginalized and exploited -- indeed, he has spoken of how he regards farmers as "the new underground". In this particular case, there's hardly any attempt to understand Goliath's perspective, to analyze from the other side of this very thorny debate, or to hear from those who see potential benefits of fracking to the wider economy of Poland and the EU. In the fiery traditions of essayistic, polemic documentary, of course, that very much goes with the terrain.

Venue: FIDMarseille (International Competition)
Production company: Revolt Cinema
Director / Screenwriter / Producer / Editor / Director of Photography: Lech Kowalski
Sales: Revolt Cinema, Paris
No MPAA rating, 105 minutes