Environmental film spotlights consequences of oil extraction for people native to affected areas

Deep in the Amazon rainforest sits a small lagoon of crude oil. A series of government policies led to the massive oil drilling and disposal which created that lagoon and the indigenous populations who live near similar disposed oil deposits bear the brunt of its health impacts. When countries and companies extract as much oil as they can, who speaks for those people on the affected land? 

Associate professor of political science and international relations Karleen West and American University political scientist Todd Eisenstadt try to find an answer to that question in their book Who Speaks for Nature? Indigenous Movements, Public Opinion, and the Petro-State in Ecuador. 

American University communication professor Larry Engel turned that book into a documentary of the same name, which the department of political science and international relations presented to a packed house of students and community members on Friday March 30 at the Riviera Theatre. 

The documentary follows West and Eisenstadt as they travel on a nine-day-long research trip to Ecuador in 2017, where they conducted interviews with various stakeholders. The small oil lagoon makes an appearance when the professors demonstrate the way that companies and the government dispose of spent material—they must cover their hands in soap to avoid the oil’s toxicity. 

For the local community, however, soap can only do so much. Many local communities have experienced illness or death from lengthy contact with the pits or consumption of tainted drinking water. West and Eisenstadt talk to other indigenous populations as they debate whether to allow oil exploration on their communal lands. 

Beyond these poorly disposed petrochemicals’ direct consequences, West and Eisenstadt found a more insidious impact. Once the chemicals degraded the environment, residents felt too disillusioned to take action to prevent further degradation. 

“One of the most important findings was that in order to get people to continue caring about the environment … they have to care about the environment,” West said. “Once it’s degraded, people feel like they’ve lost hope … My goal would be for people here to reflect on what they have: in what condition is our environment here? How can we start to think locally?” 

At the showing, the documentary’s production became its own story, as Engel detailed during the question-and-answer portion. Some of the conditions in the Amazon and crowded Ecuadorian streets, as well as the time constraint, created difficulties. At one point, Engel said they lost multiple hours of footage due to heat. 

“It was really a whirlwind,” Engel said. “Some places it was challenging because of sound and the heat, but we really crammed a lot into the time that we were there. Normally, I would need a lot more time to make a 30-minute film.” 

Engel also discussed the innovative techniques they tried using to overcome some hurdles of filming in complicated situations. To the audience, Engel even taught some relatively simple skills for recording video with a smartphone. Engel, for example, advises that aspiring documentarians enter airplane mode to make the phone focus on filming. 

Geography major junior Christina Morrow felt that the opportunity to hear from Engel, in addition to West, added to the film’s impact. 

“I didn’t realize there would be a Q&A with the filmmaker, so it was really interesting to get his perspective,” Morrow said. “I just like hearing these untold stories and [about the system] and that stuff.” 

The turnout impressed both West and Engel. Questions and answers extended for almost 40 minutes after the documentary ended. 

“I was blown away by the turnout,” Engel said. “If I showed this film and invited my students or faculty, I’d get a quarter of that if I was lucky. It seems that there’s a vibrant political science community here and I was just thrilled by the folks who came out and stayed and asked questions.” 

West and Eisenstadt’s book will be published by the Oxford University Press on Thursday April 11. The documentary was also recently featured at the Washington D.C. Environmental Film Festival. 

West emphasized the pleasure that came with sharing their academic findings with a larger audience. 

 “It was kind of like a dream come true,” West said. “I couldn’t have imagined being able to present our work in a way that was so accessible—it’s very satisfying.”