Small Town, Big Find
The energy debate gets personal in 'Haynesville'
The Rev. Reegis Richard was wandering through a field, hungrily eyeing a dilapidated former school and dreaming of the possibilities, when a Haynesville producer climbed over a fence out of curiosity. Five minutes later, a camera crew was set up, says documentary director Gregory Kallenberg.
It was the sort of serendipitous moment that has guided his documentary, which explores how a massive shale natural gas find in Louisiana is both fueling the dreams of Louisiana's downtrodden and crushing them, while providing a potential solution to our nation's energy thirst.
Richard sees the bucketloads of cash the find is bringing to the area as the fulfillment of a personal prophecy to save his dirt-poor African-American neighbors. "He truly believes God gave him these riches," Kallenberg says. "He wants to give back to a congregation that literally has nothing. He ends up being this incredibly inspirational character. His passion I hope comes through on the camera."
It does, as the preacher uses the sudden riches to bring the school back to life on screen. Kallenberg interweaves Richard's story along with those of Mike Smith, a good old boy who finds himself a sudden multimillionaire from the shale his 300 acres of land contains, and – perhaps the doc's most gripping character – Kassi Fitzgerald, a single mother who turns into a driven community activist to make sure both her economically depressed neighbors and the environment are treated fairly.
Kallenberg, who cut his teeth as an Austin American-Statesman technology reporter as the tech boom was blossoming in the late Nineties and later jumped into that boom full force at Austin's NotHarvard.com, approached the film originally with a clear eye for the personal narrative, a storytelling philosophy that took root further in his days as a University of Texas film student. He originally followed 11 people affected by the Haynesville find. "As with most documentaries like this, some stories fizzled, and once some saw how obtrusive a camera can be, some people opted out," he says. "I was left with about seven really compelling 'personal' narratives." The final three stories made the cut "because they are such strong characters, and they embodied all sides of what was happening during this crazy time in Louisiana."
Kallenberg had moved to Shreveport in 2007 and was in search of a next project. Haynesville fell in his lap while he was enjoying the legendary strawberry pie in Strawn's Eat Shop. "I was sitting in this cafe, and these farmers out of central casting come stumbling in like they just left the creek at Sutter's Mill," he says. "I think it was the fervor as they discussed this secret gas well that put me into eavesdropping mode." The northeast Louisiana discovery was not yet in the news, so Kallenberg, camera in hand, jumped in at an opportune time to tell the story. "It turned out this thing was real," he says. "It blew up on me."
The final film is one Kallenberg sees as significant in a much larger sense. "This issue of energy has become so prevalent," he says. "It's complicated. I really think the film transcends being just about these people but also how we are going to handle our energy future. My personal belief is there's a lot of energy under the feet of Louisiana. We've got to work with the industry, and we have to dictate how it's going to be extracted in a fair way, an environmentally safe way."
That battle is portrayed in the film by single mother Fitzgerald, who never completed high school. She throws herself into tireless research and grassroots footwork once she realizes the oil companies are paying different amounts to different neighbors for gas rights, primarily based on the person's economic situation. "She tries to overcome her lack of education by pure gumption," Kallenberg says. "She comes really close to winning against greater odds. She ends up suing Exxon and wins the ability to move from federal court to parish court. Nobody told her that Exxon's a big fucking conglomerate."
Kallenberg makes an interesting choice with the oil industry's side of the tale. "When it came to presenting the larger energy story, I wanted to be very careful and present it the right way," he says."I wanted it to be a compelling argument, and I wanted it presented by people outside of the oil industry. As a result, the bigger views on energy are delivered by academics like Tad Patzek, pundits like Austinite Robert Bryce, and world-renowned environmentalist Bill McKibben."
The doc's goal is more about engaging discussion about our energy future than pushing any one agenda – though Kallenberg is clear in his distaste for coal as an energy source. Haynesville screened at December's Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, an event that hit home for him the importance of this chance project. "There were hardcore energy lobbyists on one side and hardcore environmentalists on the other," he says. "It was heartening to see both sides look at the screen and nod at it. Haynesville really shows the issue from all levels. There is an intimate, tertiary exploration of the issue as these people on the ground grapple with consequences of the find. But Haynesvile also zooms out to a macro level, where you get to see what this energy could mean in getting us to a clean, renewable-based energy future. At the end, I really wanted to leave my audience in a place where they could start a conversation ... and what they envision as an energy future."
Kallenberg already has signed with the European distributor Mercury Media and hopes screenings like the one at South by Southwest will lead to U.S. distribution. It's a big leap from Kallenberg's last documentary, "Eating Levi," a short that followed the career of a competitive eater. It was another story that Kallenberg happened to happen upon: He has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, as with the dot-com boom. "It was an amazingly exciting time," he says. "It was the only time in history where creative people actually got paid a good, fair wage. I did that, and then I got laid off like everyone else. When I was hired at NotHarvard, I was employee number 200 or something like that. When I left I was employee number 15." After the dot-com bust, Kallenberg wrote for Los Angeles' Bluefield Entertainment and did graphic design for Whole Foods before he happened upon the story of Austin's Levi Oliver, who downed 36 tamales in 12.5 minutes to become the first-ever tamale-eating champ. Kallenberg followed him for eight months while he trained for the eating event. "I've always been best at personal stories," Kallenberg says. "[Oliver] was someone who wanted this recognition and found it in the weird world of competitive eating. It was a tiny, tiny film, but it was a blast to do." It also fulfilled advice he'd received to go out and do a film largely on his own to fully immerse himself in the process.
That film was edited by Mark Bullard – the guy who climbed across the Louisiana fence in search of an important thread to the Haynesville story and the previous editor for music doc Lubbock Lights. Bullard co-produced Haynesville and split his time between Austin and Shreveport. Kallenberg is now firmly planted east of the Texas border, though he itches to return to Austin. "Both Mark and I are from Austin, and we are really looking forward to coming home and showing our friends, family, and colleagues the work that we've done on Haynesville," he says. And Louisiana, the land of the hefty film incentives? "From the subjects that allowed us into their lives to the support of their budding film community, it is an incredibly warm and inviting place where you always felt like people would do anything and everything to help you."
Personally financed with the aid of friends and family, the completed film's look is crisp, professional, and illustrates what Kallenberg has learned about independent filmmaking throughout the process. He admits the first cut was almost 2½ hours long. "It was like Warhol's Empire," he jokes. But the final, trimmed-down film is taut and does a good job of mixing the personal and the big ideas – not unlike the filmmakers' own struggle to make a significant movie with limited resources. "We can go out and shoot these things with some good friends, a light kit, and a borrowed camera," he says.
Haynesville: A Nation's Relentless Hunt for Energy
Spotlight Premieres, North American Premiere
Tuesday, March 16, 11am, Paramount