Can Documentary Films Create Change?

Sociology Study Finds Connection Between 'Gasland' and Anti-Fracking Movement

Women speak at a protest rally as part of the anti-Fracking movement in California. The 2010 film Gasland drew attention to this issue.
Don't Frack California protest and rally in Sacramento, March 15, 2014. Lisa Werner/Getty Images

For a long time, many have assumed that documentary films about issues that affect society are able to motivate people to create change, but this was just an assumption, as there was no hard evidence to show such a connection. Finally, a team of sociologists have tested this theory with empirical research, and found that documentary films can in fact motivate conversation around issues, political action, and social change.

A team of researchers, lead by Dr. Ion Bogdan Vasi of the University of Iowa, focused on the case of the 2010 film Gasland--about the negative impacts of drilling for natural gas, or "fracking"--and its potential connection to the anti-fracking movement in the U.S. For their study published in American Sociological Review, the researchers looked for behaviors consistent with an anti-fracking mindset around the time period when the film was first released (June 2010), and when it was nominated for an Academy Award (February 2011). They found that web searches for 'Gasland' and social media chatter related to both fracking and the film spiked around those times.

Speaking with the American Sociological Association, Vasi said, "In June 2010, the number of searches for 'Gasland' was four times higher than the number of searches for 'fracking,' indicating that the documentary created significant interest in the topic among the general public."

The researchers also found that attention to fracking on Twitter increased over time and received large bumps (6 and 9 percent respectively) with the film's release and its award nomination. They also saw a similar increase in mass media attention to the issue, and by studying newspaper articles, found that the majority of news coverage of fracking also mentioned the film in June 2010 and January 2011.

Further, and significantly, they found a clear connection between screenings of Gasland and anti-fracking actions like protests, demonstrations, and civil disobedience in communities where screenings took place. These anti-fracking actions--what sociologists call "mobilizations"--helped fuel policy changes related to fracking the Marcellus Shale (a region that spans Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and West Virginia).

So ultimately, the study shows that a documentary film associated with a social movement--or perhaps another kind of cultural product like art or music--can have real effects at both national and local levels. In this particular case, they found that the film Gasland had the effect of changing how the conversation around fracking was framed, from one that suggested that the practice is safe, to one that focused on the risks associated with it.

This is an important finding because it suggests that documentary films (and maybe cultural products generally) can serve as important tools for social and political change. This fact could have a real impact on willingness of investors and foundations that award grants to support documentary filmmakers. This knowledge about documentary films, and the possibility of increased support for them, could lead to a rise in the production, prominence, and circulation of them.

It's possible that this could also have an impact on funding for investigative journalism--a practice that has mostly fallen away as re-reporting and entertainment-focused news has skyrocketed over the last couple of decades.

In the written report about the study, the researchers concluded by encouraging others to study the connections between documentary films and social movements. They suggest that there may be important lessons learned for filmmakers and activists alike by understanding why some films fail to catalyze social action while others succeed.