Loretta Goff surveys Johnny Gogan’s film about the power of a marginalised community to effect change on a local and global scale.

Filmmaker and activist Johnny Gogan’s latest documentary, Groundswell covers nearly a decade of Irish resistance to fracking, which is the practice of drilling down and across the earth and releasing a mixture of chemicals and water at high pressure, fracturing rock to release gas. After three companies were given licenses in 2011 to explore an area of land in Leitrim, Cavan, and Fermanagh as a promising gas field, locals learned of fracking and the dangers it poses to the environment and to health ,and they began working together with politicians, environmental organisations, communities in the United States affected by fracking, and artists to oppose fracking in Ireland. Meanwhile, Tamboran, the gas company, sends its executives in with the promise of investment and jobs for an Ireland badly hit by recession.

Groundswell opens with a quote from Leitrim writer John McGahern’s Love of the World, setting the tone for what follows: “The quality of feeling that’s brought to a landscape is actually more important than the landscape itself.” The people populating this rural Leitrim landscape, their sense of community, history, and attachment to the land prevail throughout the film, as does the important role that various forms of art play in bringing people together, educating, and expressing ideas of resistance. Gogan intersperses community meetings and events with on-the-ground interviews with individuals in Leitrim, Fermanagh, Pennsylvania, and New York, often on the street, in their homes, or out on the land, rather than formally arranged. In these, he speaks to a variety of individuals, from members of affected communities to doctors, experts, environmentalists, farmers, activists, artists, politicians and even Mark Ruffalo. This range and Gogan’s conversational approach allow the audience to feel as if they too can be involved. Interjecting the conversations are works by artists responding to gas and oil companies coming to Ireland – readings by Donal O’Kelly of his plays, a sombre animation by Ivano A. Antonazzo, and songs by Steve Wickham. Equally, the value of film is highlighted throughout with references to GasLand (2010), from which many learned about the dangers of fracking, and The Pipe (2010) which documents the Rossport, Mayo community standing up to Shell Oil. Groundswell now stands among these films as a tool to educate and empower individuals to face down big companies in defence of their communities and the environment.

Showing viewers the results of fracking in Pennsylvania communities helps demonstrate its negative impacts first-hand, but equally poignant in the documentary is the visualisation of the extent of land in Ireland that could be impacted across the three counties on both sides of the border. What perhaps drives home the dangers of fracking the most, however, is the politicians apparently referring to this area as a “sacrifice zone” to help boost the economy.

While Groundswell demonstrates the manipulation and greed involved in the process of allowing fracking, and the damages it causes, the documentary ultimately retains a positive tone throughout, highlighting the importance of dialogue and strength of community. Over the decade covered in the film, Ireland bans both fracking and the import of fracked gas, but the fight is not over, as Tamboran responds to this by focussing on the land north of the border. Despite the fact that ongoing efforts are needed, the documentary ends on a hopeful note with clips of young people protesting for climate change. Ultimately, Gogan illustrates the power of an inclusive, collaborative protest in Groundswell, offering encouragement for future efforts for the environment and community.

Groundswell is available on digital platforms from 30th April.


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