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Meet the Filmmakers: Debra Anderson--'Split Estate'

By Tom White

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, July 31-August 20 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Debra Anderson, director/producer of Split Estate..

Synopsis: Imagine discovering that you don't own the mineral rights under your land, and that an energy company plans to drill for natural gas 200 feet from your front door. Split Estate maps a tragedy in the making, as citizens in the path of a new drilling boom in the Rocky Mountain West struggle against the erosion of their civil liberties, their communities and their health.

IDA:  How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Debra Anderson: I started in film during graduate school in New York City. I was studying fine art at Hunter College and became curious about working in a time-based medium, rather than working with a single image. I thought I could volunteer on an NYU student film to watch how it all worked, but instead a friend led me to a job as a production assistant on the Connie Chung show, and I was off to Three Mile Island for my first shoot on location. After that, I was bitten by the bug, and I worked and trained in every different aspect of the business that I could, including as a PA, props and sets, and film bookkeeping. I knew from the beginning that I could work in this business for the rest of my life and never stop learning, never get bored. When I found editing, I knew that's where I wanted to be for a while, starting as an apprentice, then as an assistant and then an editor.

IDA: What inspired you to make Split Estate?

DA: Three years ago, I read a story in On Earth magazine, published by the Natural Resources Defense Council. It was so moving to me that I left my editing room to shoot my first film. It was about a woman named Laura Amos from Garfield County, in Colorado, the state where I grew up. Laura had developed a rare form of cancer as a result of the drilling in her neighborhood. She became an activist in her community and then a plaintiff, when she sued the company responsible for her problems. After years of struggle, she was silenced. She came to a monetary settlement with Encana Corporation, which stipulated that she not tell her story ever again. But I thought that the story need not end there, in silence.

I could not believe that an energy company could come in on land that you own and drill at will without your permission, as close as 150 feet from your front door, and that it was making people sick. I imagined a drilling rig in my own parents' meadow in Colorado, and couldn't fathom that this was possible, so I began researching and then filming Split Estate. In the process, I met and began gathering the stories of an incredible community that had been fighting to be heard. 

Eight months after I started the film, to my surprise, Tecton Energy began drilling in the Galisteo Basin in Santa Fe County, New Mexico, a few miles from my own house, and I was thrust into the story in a different way. A battle ensued between the Santa Fe community and Tecton. We were fortunate to be able to provide a rough cut of the film to the community and legislators as a tool to assist a grassroots coalition that emerged, and due to their Herculean efforts, one of the strongest ordinances in the country was established and the industry backed off...for now. Today, remarkably, an energy company plans to drill in the watershed of the third place that I call home--New York City. This watershed provides drinking water to millions.  

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them? 

DA: I was surprised at how much stamina it takes to get through the entire process of  making an independent film and bringing it to the finish. Even my years of experience in the industry did not prepare me. One gets completely worn out and has to re-group over and over. It's also very hard to get attention as a first-time director. There are so many great films out there. You have to get used to hearing the word "no" a lot until you hear the all-important "yes" and not lose heart along the way. I have to give credit to the people around me who put up with a lot; donated endless time, energy, resources and funds; and made me laugh when I was too tightly wound or feeling beaten down. I overcame these challenges because I was surrounded by amazing people and organizations that consistently were there with me, and appeared at all of the right moments. They escorted the project and me to the end.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

DA: The basic theme and thrust of the story is amazingly similar to the OnEarth article that I read three years ago. The story could have been focused in a million different ways, but the specific themes of the story that interested me were there in that article. I'm sure I interpreted the events in my own way, and I encountered many new people and stories as I filmed that took the project in its own direction. There were people in the article and the media three years ago that were not available to me as I worked because they had come to monetary settlements with the industry, which required silence, or they had burned out, become exhausted and disappeared. Unfortunately, there were plenty of others available to me that were impacted as well.

IDA: As you've screened Split Estate--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

DA: What has surprised me is how emotional people have been. I don't know why I was surprised, because the story elicited a lot of emotion from me and others as we worked on the film. People have told me that they were enraged after they watched the film, and deeply saddened. And indeed, the story and issue is a tinderbox in any community that has gas and oil development. The project has elicited a different kind of anger from some of those who feel that the film is too critical of the industry.

IDA:  What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

DA: It would be impossible to pick out only a few who have inspired me. I have been inspired by hundreds over the years, and it has been a different small piece in each film that has been important: from incredible shots in one film, to a brilliantly surprising ending in another, or a completely innovative structure, or an effective and clever outreach campaign attached to the film. The films that I most love are the ones that create a ripple in society and change the way people think. The producers and crew that I have worked closely with in television over the years have also inspired me. That is where I have learned the most. They have each taught me volumes.

Split Estate will be screening at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinema in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York City.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program in Los Angeles, click here.

To purchase tickets for DocuWeeksTM in Los Angeles, click here.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for DocuWeeksTM in New York, click here.