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Last night Thom Powers screened two docs, Jessica Edwards‘ short, Seltzer Works and Gregory Kallenberg‘s feature, Haynesville as the penultimate screening in his Spring Stranger Than Fiction series. The series rarely features shorts, but Powers credited the move to the fact that both films focused on gas crises – one very small, one very large, both man-made.

Deftly shot, Seltzer Works is a carefully composed bit of nostalgia for a time when deliverymen schlepped heavy glass bottles full of fizzy water all over Brooklyn. A portrait of a third-generation seltzer man struggling to survive in a world that no longer needs him, Edwards treats her subject with dignity without lapsing into self-seriousness.

Haynesville tells the rather sprawling story of what happens when a very small town is found to be on top of a very big reserve of natural gas. Making a documentary like Haynesville is both an act of faith and an act of cunning – yes, Kallenberg had to trust that events would play out in interesting ways, but he casted smartly, finding subjects with both natural screen presence and storylines that were on an interesting trajectory.

We follow these characters – a suddenly rich landowner who just sold the land he loved to the highest bidder, a local woman who discovers her inner Erin Brockovich and a local preacher who thinks of the natural gas shale underneath his feet as a gift from God – as their lives are forever changed by our nation’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for cheap energy.

Woven throughout are interviews with energy scientists invigorated by what such a large reserve of natural gas means for our energy future. Turns out that Haynesville’s natural gas shale may have granted us a grace period to save ourselves from our gas-guzzling ways.

Haynesville couldn’t possibly be timelier. That black cloud of oil spilling into our nation’s waters has turned an abstract fear into our very real doom. Kallenberg’s impressive act of journalism is both a small shaft of hope in our ever darkening waters and a warning tale about what happens to communities when big energy moves in, both for the better and the worse.

I spoke to Gregory Kallenberg before the screening.

Filmmaker: Which came first, your interested in energy or your interest in Haynesville?

What came first is the interest in Haynesville, the personal story aspect of it. I was working on a different subject about people who had moved back to Louisiana. I was sitting in a café and these two guys walked in straight of central casting, and they were talking about a well.  After hearing them tell it, I perked up my head and discovered these stories were everywhere.

Filmmaker: You’re really there from the very beginning. Did you know from the start that you were going to get a full-length documentary from the subject?

I think one thing to be said for doc filmmakers is we are unbridled optimists. I never questioned I wouldn’t get something. I questioned what it would be.

Filmmaker: How did you approach casting?

We probably started with about eleven stories from all different sides…We wanted to pick three people that gave the embodiment of the time. Some people who didn’t have things go their way said they didn’t want to be filmed anymore and dropped out. Eleven fell to seven real quick, which fell to five, which fell to three, the best of the best.

Filmmaker: At what point did you decided that the more local story of the people in Haynesville needed the global perspective of the energy scientists?

Once we figured out that there was such a vast amount of energy that it was going to change things, that’s when we decided to go out and come up with a larger context. The larger context was what does this natural gas really mean. We were ready for a polarized argument – for the natural gas guys to slams the solar guy and the natural gas guys to slam the back. I think what surprised us is that these people were tacitly agreeing.

Filmmaker: Is shooting in the South easier? Are people less wary of the cameras than in other areas of the country that are more media saturated?

Again, when I started the project, nobody else was on it. I was kind of a novelty… One of the things I do very well is that I am good at meeting people and getting into their personal stories. Der Spiegel and the LA Times did a story, portraying these people as hick lottery winners, and it really upset these people, and we lost some of our stories. People felt that their portrayal was unfair and withdrew. If you betray a Southerner’s trust, they go back to being the most shut off people in the country.

Filmmaker: I went in expecting to experience nothing but doom and gloom and walked out with a feeling of hope. Was that your intent?

I wanted this film to start the conversation. I’ve seen it happened at universities and SXSW and seen people on both sides of the issues come to some sort of agreement… These companies can have the natural gas if they do it in an environmentally safe way that’s fair to landowners… The drill, baby drill people hate my film. The industry does not like my film. Hyper-environmentalists don’t like my film because it says natural gas could be a solution. I do believe there is a rational middle. It’s just up to us to come to a table.

— Mary Anderson Casavant

A graduate of Amherst College, Mary Anderson Casavant was selected as the 2004 Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Documentary Intern. Since then, she’s held almost every freelance job that exists in documentary television, including being the coordinating producer of the Emmy Award winning second season of This American Life. Her feature screenplay, Judgey, was one of ten screenplays selected from more than 3500 entries for the final round of the Final Draft Big Break contest. She lives and works in New York City.

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