By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota
WINONA, Minn. — The Frozen River Film Festival has iced out — critics say censored — a showing of the critically acclaimed, if controversial in some circles, feature documentary “FrackNation,” setting the stage for a less than artful narrative of what happened and a public relations backlash starring the banished filmmakers.
FRFF board members declined to respond to repeated requests from Watchdog Minnesota to comment on their decision. The film’s directors, however, contend the last-minute cancellation makes their point better than the documentary itself.
“They seem to think they know what’s best for everyone,” said Phelim McAleer, a co-director and narrator of “FrackNation.” “And what they’ve decided is the ‘ordinary’ people shouldn’t be allowed to see something from a different point of view…movies for zombies. No dissent allowed.”
Fracking looms as one of the most contentious issues in Winona, a southeastern Minnesota city situated amid rich frac sand deposits used to drill for gas and oil deposits deep underground. The film’s revocation raised questions about providing alternative perspectives on important policy issues at a festival supported by $32,000 in taxpayer funding from the state arts and cultural heritage fund.
“The decision does nothing to encourage the marketplace-of-ideas concept that underlies the First Amendment,” said Steven Aggeraard, a Minneapolis attorney and 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 festival’s marquee event originally pitted a film challenging opponents’ distortions of hydraulic fracturing’s economic and environmental impact against a sequel to a popular anti-industry documentary, “Gaslands II.”
It’s as though Variety’s review played out in real life in this Mississippi River town that also serves as a major port for shipping frac sand. “Those nursing the suspicion that Hollywood politics are awash in knee-jerk liberalism may well have their cynicism validated by “FrackNation,” wrote reviewer John Anderson in the Hollywood trade magazine.
“We really had to search our soul,” FRFF board chair Mike Kennedy told the Winona Daily News. “We’ve never canceled a film.””
Then what led the festival’s board to tear up the script and replace “FrackNation” with a comparatively dry two hour forum, “Documentaries Today — My Fact Your Fiction?”
Take One: Festival officials told the paper the film’s directors never agreed to make someone available for a Q-and-A session after the film. Yet McAleer claims the post-screening panel was never a condition for playing his “search for the fracking truth” as the marketing cut line puts it.
Take Two: Questions arose over possible industry-related funding for “FrackNation” that led FRFF to back out for ethical reasons. However, a New York Times review that describes the film as “no tossed-off, pro-business pamphlet” reports the project was “financed by thousands of small donations from an online campaign” on Kickstarter.
McAleer questioned FRFF’s funding. “I don’t know why anyone should get state money for a film festival these days,” he said. “We raised $212,000 on Kickstarter for one film. Surely they can raise $20,000 for a film festival.”
Take Three: The FRFF board consulted the Mountain Film Festival in Telluride and Sundance and belatedly followed those festivals’ example in turning down the film for alleged ties to the fracking industry. The filmmakers flatly deny any industry ties.
Mike Kennedy, however, does have ties to the Izaak Walton League, an environmental group that supports a moratorium on fracking. Kennedy stated his views in a locally published op-ed promoting an environmental film in the 2013 festival.
“This is the perfect public presentation for a community that could be an epicenter for the handling and transportation of products from the largest industrial-scale frac sand mining operation in the nation,” wrote Kennedy.
The top official of an arts organization that provided $10,000 in taxpayer funds for FRFF’s administrative costs declined to second-guess the organization’s actions or to address censorship issues.
“We do not get involved with the choices they make there. That would be micromanaging,” said Robin Pearson, executive
director of the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council. “That’s an organizational choice they have to be comfortable with. If there’s something there that they’re unable to manage or they think it needs to be changed, that would be their role — not ours.”
Another publicly funded festival sponsor, Winona State University, distanced itself from the controversy. “Winona State University is a sponsor of the Frozen River Film Festival and serves as a venue for festival events. WSU does not provide input in programming decisions for the festival,” said Andrea Mikkelsen, director of public relations at WSU.
In the end, the directors issued “FrackNation” an official looking citation and news release announcing the first award in its category for a film entered in Winona: Officially Censored by the Frozen River Film Festival.
“It’s almost funny,” McAleer said. “These are people who say they are liberal and open to diversity and that dissent is patriotic. But the first time some guy from Ireland comes over and starts to say something off-script, they get their knickers in a twist.”
Contact Tom Steward at [email protected]