Jon Bowermaster, whose just-completed documentary Dear Governor Cuomo will have its world premiere this Thursday, October 11 at the Woodstock Playhouse as one of the highlights of the 13th annual Woodstock Film Festival (WFF), is still not quite sure how he got to be a “fracktivist.” When he’s not at home in Stone Ridge, most of the time he’s sitting in a sea kayak collecting glorious footage of exotic waterbound places for his OCEANS 8 project, funded by the National Geographic Society. His work as a “professional adventurer,” writer and filmmaker has taken him to the Aleutians, Antarctica, the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, French Polynesia, Gabon, Tasmania and Vietnam, as well as further inland in the high plains of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. Folks in the Hudson Valley may have caught one of his lectures and slideshows at local venues like Rock and Snow in New Paltz, if they haven’t seen him on the Discovery Channel.
All of Bowermaster’s expeditions involved documentation of threats to water-related natural resources, and now the specter of legalized hydraulic fracturing in New York State has inspired him to exercise his filmmaking skills a whole lot closer to home. “Last year the Woodstock Film Festival showed my film SoLa, which was about human impacts on Louisiana waterways,” he recounts. “While I was making that film, people down there were saying to me, ‘Don’t let this kind of thing happen to the water where you live.’” His heightened awareness of water issues brought him into contact with local and regional anti-fracking groups who have been getting organized over the past couple of years, and the fact that he happens to be Natalie Merchant’s Significant Other threw him together with New York State-based musicians and actors who had gotten involved with the movement.
Before he knew what hit him, Bowermaster was volunteering his services to write and direct a documentary on fracking whose centerpiece would be a concert and speakout held in Albany on May 15, 2012. Academy Award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer) brought in a six-person crew to shoot the event. “Virtually everything was volunteer. No one was compensated,” Bowermaster relates. Evolving Media in Kingston did the editing gratis. “The goal is to get this out and get as many people as possible to see it. We’d be happy to show it for free. All the proceeds are going to New Yorkers against Fracking, which is an umbrella group for hundreds of local anti-fracking groups throughout the state.”
Whether because hydrofracking is on everyone’s mind these days or because the screening will be followed by a concert featuring Natalie Merchant and “special guests,” tickets to the WFF premiere sold out very early. “It’s the first film ever to open in the Woodstock Film Festival without them having seen it,” Bowermaster, who just put the finishing touches on Dear Governor Cuomo last Friday, says with a laugh. “The organization Food and Water Watch is eager to distribute it nationally and internationally.” Locally, screenings have already been scheduled for Time and Space Limited in Hudson on October 21 and the Rosendale Theatre on October 24.
Citing the 80,000 letters received by the Department of Environmental Conservation from citizens concerned about fracking during the recent public hearing process, Bowermaster says, “It’s the most debated, most contentious issue in modern New York State history – more than gay marriage.” He describes the tone of the film as “an invitation to the governor. We know he’s in a tight spot. He’s thinking of running for president in 2012 and doesn’t want to antagonize the energy industry. But we want him to become a New Yorker against fracking.”
Besides lots of music from performers including Joan Osborne, Medeski Martin and Wood and the Felice Brothers, in addition to Merchant, the film presents fracking facts from environmental biologists and testimonies from citizens whose health was harmed in other states where the practice is already legal. Hudson Valley-based actors Melissa Leo and Mark Ruffalo are also featured, and no one will be greatly surprised if they are among the “special guests” promised at Thursday’s premiere.
The Woodstock Film Festival will take place Wednesday, October 10 through Sunday, October 14 with screenings, panels, concerts and other events taking place in Woodstock, Rosendale, Rhinebeck, Saugerties and Kingston. For schedules and other details, see www.woodstockfilmfestival.com.