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Woodstock Film Festival: Dear Governor Cuomo 

Letter from Gasland

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Award-winning journalist, author, and filmmaker Jon Bowermaster has traveled far from his Stone Ridge home to write articles and books, and helm 12 films that document the damage man has visited upon his environment. Among his destinations: the Aleutian Islands, Vietnam, French Polynesia, South America, and West Africa.

But for his latest project, a call to arms against fracking, Bowermaster didn’t have to go far. New York may soon become the 37th state to allow fracking. “I thought it was time to focus on my own backyard,” he says.
This past May, Bowermaster and musician-activist Natalie Merchant (his creative collaborator and live-in companion) mounted an all-star concert called “New Yorkers Against Fracking” at The Egg in Albany. “Dear Governor Cuomo” is a 70-minute filmed document of that evening. The title refers to an open letter to Cuomo, read by actor Mark Ruffalo, asking the politician to maintain the state moratorium on fracking.

The concert and teach-in drew musicians who call the Empire State home and are concerned by how up to 95,000 natural gas wells may affect their land, air, and water. Joining Merchant for an evening of plaintive and anthemic songs were Joan Osborne, Dan Zanes, M’Shell Ndegeocello, Citizen Cope, Medeski, Martin & Wood, John Sebastian, Toshi Reagon, and The Horseflies. Also sharing the stage were prominent anti-fracking activists and actors (Ruffalo, Pete Seeger, Melissa Leo) who provided facts, figures, and heartbreaking personal accounts to justify their collective concern. The songs and testimonies are enhanced by a series of images of pristine landscape and, in sharp contrast, areas befouled by fracking. (The images for both the concert and the film were provided by the Kingston-based company Evolving Media Network.)

Bowermaster, now a passionate anti-fracking adherent, can easily rattle off a string of sobering facts concerning fracking. Not that he was hard to convince; the director's last film about pollution caused by energy companies was SoLA: Louisiana Water Stories, which documented the oversights and corruption that transformed the state into a dumping ground for the collateral damage from oil drilling.

Dear Governor Cuomo makes its case with an understated integrity rather than histrionics—save for a harrowing letter read by Oscar winner Leo from a woman poisoned by fracking. But in the best sense, it is a manifesto. Does that make Bowermaster a filmmaker or an activist? “I’m a journalist-slash-filmmaker,” he says. “It’s a fine line. I guess I could be seen as an activist. But I would never call myself that.”

The rhetoric of the film is neither fiery nor divisive but “consistently moderate,” Bowermaster says. “What you hear is not ‘Governor Cuomo, you’re a bad guy” [but instead] ‘Come to our side; here’s the facts. We know you get it. You’re a smart guy.’”

Still, Bowermaster has jettisoned his usual quest for objectivity for this film. Anti-fracking activists, actors, and musicians explain their stand against the process. But Dear Governor Cuomo does not give equal time to the energy companies, who have outspent antifrackers one hundred times to push their message.

The director stands by his creative decision. “This is not a traditional documentary where you go out and get both sides. I know what response I’m going to get from the gas companies.” Their argument, Bowermaster says, will emerge in the upcoming documentary Truthland, a pointed attack on the Josh Fox antifracking film Gasland.

The director plans to make DVDs of the film—which he bankrolled for an estimated $25,000—available at cost to the public while concommitantly screening it at festivals around the country. Bowermaster hopes that Dear Governor Cuomo will be seen at town meetings in churches and schools across the state. There is a sense of urgency to get the film out; political insiders predict that Cuomo may make a decision soon after the presidential elections. (Anticipating that, Bowermaster said, energy company reps are already going to door to door in Ulster County’s Kerhonkson and Accord, asking farm property owners to consider leasing their land for fracking.)

“It’s a good time to keep the pressure on [Cuomo],” Bowermaster says, “and I think this [film] may go a little way, I hope.”

A screening plus live concert by Natalie Merchant and friends will be held on Thursday, October 11 at the Woodstock Playhouse.

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