Unfractured, the new documentary about environmental activist and ecologist Dr. Sandra Steingraber, is primarily about the personal sacrifices made by individuals like Steingraber while fighting for environmental causes and future generations.
“I try to tell my kids, 'Mom is on the job,'” Steingraber explains. “That is my job. To protect you and to plan for your future.” However, as Steingraber makes clear elsewhere in the film, we learn the reality: “It is not possible to do it all.”
While the documentary primarily follows the battle against fracking in New York, Steingraber also travels to Romania to meet with anti-fracking protesters there and then returns to New York to join efforts to stop natural gas storage in Seneca Lake salt caverns.
The Accidental Activist
Like many others, Steingraber’s life of environmental activism was initially driven by personal health experiences which later brought her to the cause. Steingraber’s hometown in rural Illinois experienced a cancer cluster and she was diagnosed with bladder cancer in her 20s. This experience led to her writing Living Downstream, a book published in 1997 about the links between cancer and environmental pollution, which has also been turned into a documentary.
As someone already involved with the environment and public health concerns, the fight to ban fracking in New York was a natural move for Steingraber. In 2012 she received a $100,000 prize from the Heinz Foundation and she used much of that money to start the group New Yorkers Against Fracking.
While in Unfractured we see Steingraber attending rallies and panels about fracking, we also get an intimate look at her personal life as her husband — just in his 50s — begins to experience a series of debilitating strokes. It all seems overwhelming to Steingraber but she vows to continue her advocacy work despite the odds. The reality of the emotional juggling this requires hits home in a scene when Steingraber is riding to yet another rally while reassuring her husband that she renewed their health insurance and he didn’t need to worry.
This film is full of such moments showing the constant challenges of trying to mix a family, a career, and a life of activism. At one point in the film, Steingraber worries about what it would have been like to fight to ban fracking in New York and … then lose.
This documentary isn’t going to make anyone run out and join an environmental movement for the glamor and fun. However, Steingraber’s commitment and effort are likely to inspire new activists.
Romania, Fracking, and the Corporate Police
In the middle of the documentary, Steingraber is inspired by a video of fracking protesters in Romania and decides she needs to meet them in person. “I just want to go there and talk to them,” she says to the camera. “I just feel this overwhelming need to go.”
Fracking rig in Romania. Credit: Screen capture from Unfractured
So, accompanied by her teenage son, she heads to Romania, where they meet activists trying to stop Chevron from using fracking techniques on local farm land. The situation there appears very similar to the protests in America: impassioned activists pushing back on behalf of the land against global corporations and the police employed by those companies.
Steingraber and her son quickly learn they will be followed by the police everywhere they go in Romania, and safety is clearly a concern for her as she navigates the protests with her son.
Romanian children protesting Chevron fracking efforts. Credit: Screen capture from Unfractured
We Are Seneca Lake
After Steingraber's trip to Romania, the documentary mostly focuses on the efforts to stop plans for natural gas storage in old salt caverns below Seneca Lake, near where Steingraber lives. Seneca Lake provides drinking water for 100,000 people in the region.
Steingraber is part of the group We Are Seneca Lake, which organizes against the build-out of additional natural gas infrastructure in the region. The protests focus on using civil disobedience to block access to the natural gas facility, resulting in hundreds of arrests — including Steingraber.
“Today we are letting our bodies speak because we have tried our voices, we have tried every single recourse that we can think of within the law,” Steingraber tells a crowd preparing to be arrested.
During one of the Seneca Lake protests, a scene unfolds in which Steingraber and the others learn that New York will ban fracking — an announcement they met with considerable rejoicing.
Later, Steingraber is asked what she was feeling at the time she learned that New York would ban fracking … and that they had won.
She answers: “I felt so overwhelmed … the years and years of how hard it was and how much I miss my family.”
Unfractured will screen Friday, January 12 and Saturday January 13 at 7:00 p.m. PST at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival in Nevada City, California.
Main image: Sandra Steingraber speaking in Romania. Credit: Screen capture from Unfractured