Tom Steward

Tom Steward is the bureau chief of Watchdog.org's Minnesota Bureau, a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He is an investigative reporter focused on waste, fraud and abuse in government and has previously worked for WCCO-TV (CBS) and KSTP-TV (ABC) in the Twin Cities. Follow Tom on Facebook and Twitter.

Banned in Winona: The Frozen River Film Festival’s Fracking Fiasco

Posted by: Tom Steward Updated: January 24, 2014 - 3:18 PM

An award was won before the film festival even got underway in Winona this week. The first ever “Officially Censored by the Frozen River Film Festival” citation went to “FrackNation” for being the only film cancelled before anyone was allowed to see it in the event’s nine year history. 

“I just thought the people of Minnesota would appreciate a different point of view but the environmentalist elites won’t allow them to be exposed to an alternative point of view,” said Phelim McAleer, the deposed film’s co-director and narrator who conferred the award.  “…Movies for zombies.  No dissent allowed.”

As a journalist and documentary producer on issues from endangered Indonesian tigers (Animal Planet) to Minnesota’s juvenile justice system (KSTP-TV) to what inspires artists to create (NPR/CBC), no doubt I take the abrupt cancellation/censorship—take your pick—of the feature documentary a bit personally.  Maybe you should too.

Not only because of the implied threat to free speech. Consider that the “cancellation” was made possible with $32,000 of taxpayer funding from the Minnesota State Arts Board/Legacy Amendment fund that underwrites the festival.  

The banned film was scheduled in the first place to provide balance for an anti-fracking industry film, “Gaslands II.”  And fracking remains an intensely contested issue in Winona, a Mississippi River crossroads for mining and shipping frac sand. 

“The decision does nothing to encourage the marketplace-of-ideas concept that underlies the First Amendment. Free speech generally means more speech, not less, and documentaries certainly are considered speech under the law,” said Steven Aggeraard, a local attorney who’s an expert on First Amendment issues.  “Anytime an organization that benefits at least in part from taxpayer funding makes decisions about what is or is not appropriate for the taxpayers to see, it is worth asking questions about how and why those decisions were made. That is particularly true if decisions are made to further some viewpoints over others.”

The storyline on what led the festival board to cancel “FrackNation” keeps evolving (financing, participation in a Q and A, etc.)  FRFF board members never responded to repeated requests to articulate why they for all practical purposes blacklisted “FrackNation,” whose directors’ credits include the BBC, CBC and RTE.  

Perhaps it’s not that complicated.  Could it be the film made too convincing a case that some opponents of hydraulic fracturing distort the facts, science and economics behind the boom?

After all, “FrackNation” won over its most skeptical audience—film critics.  Variety found “plenty to chew over, including the possibility that perhaps all is not as simple as it seems in the world of nonrenewable energy.”  The New York Times said the film “is no tossed-off, pro-business pamphlet. Methodically researched and assembled (and financed by thousands of small donations from an online campaign)…”  The New York Post review found the film “gleefully shreds assertions made in the anti-fracking documentary “Gasland…”

Get the picture?  Sadly, the residents of Winona will not.

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT