Lifestyles Reviews

Film Review: Oil and Water

The northern region of the Ecuadorian Amazon, called the Oriente, is home to a host of indigenous groups, many of whom have lived in isolation from Western influence for much of their histories. Among those indigenous peoples are the Cofán, whose population of 2000 is split down the middle between Ecuador and Colombia. When the Texaco oilmen came to Cofán lands in 1964, they came to exploit one of the largest oil fields in the Western Hemisphere, and to do it in the cheapest way possible.

The documentary, Oil and Water, focused on the intersection of the lives of two young people—Hugo Luciante of the Cofán in Ecuador and David Poritz from America. When Hugo was ten years old, he was sent with Miranda Detore, a student from the University of Washington, to be educated at St. Joseph high school in Seattle. Hugo’s father, who is president of the village of Zábalo, expected him to return a leader who would fight the oil interests encroaching on their land and their rights.

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The documentary, Oil and Water, focuses on the oil and gas industry and the people’s fight for regulation.

Shortly after graduating from high school, Hugo met his future wife, Sadie, who would later come home to live with him in Zábalo. After graduation, the couple moved to San Antonio, Texas to work long hours at minimum wage jobs in the hopes of saving enough money to attend college. When their funds ran out, they returned to Zábalo, initially for a short stay. But soon after arriving, they got jobs teaching local children and decided to build a home and a life.

David Poritz came into the picture by way of a sixth grade project about the oil industry’s dirty operating practices in the Ecuadorian Amazon. He studied the 1993 class action lawsuit brought by attorney Cristobal Bonifaz against Texaco for dumping wastewater and crude oil into local waterways. The next year, David happened to have Bonifaz’s daughter as his teacher and he convinced her to introduce them. Poritz then spent that summer organizing boxes upon boxes of loose papers that Texaco dumped at Bonifaz’s door to help him make his next case.

As the film progressed, the way David’s character was portrayed shifted from an ambitious kid helping to fight oppression in the Amazon to a hungry business shark; cutting deals with the very industry he used to stand against. His brainchild was a certification system for the oil and gas industry, akin to organic or fair-trade certification. The rationale behind the project was that since petroleum is not going away anytime soon, it might as well be regulated and held accountable.

Toward the end of the film, David and Hugo traveled to a Petroamazonas drilling site at Eden-Yuturi. David’s company, Equitable Origin, was on the site to certify the plant and Hugo was in shock the whole time as it was the first time he had ever set foot inside of an oil operation. The oil companies that had come onto Cofán land erected tall fences and did not allow any native people to enter or ask questions.

The film ended in Quito, with Hugo’s younger brother and sister attending school in the Ecuadorian capital. Then before the credits, after the last two scenes depicting hope for the future, a block of text shocked but did not surprise the audience with the fact that in 2013 another major pipeline ruptured. Roughly 420,000 gallons of crude were subsequently emptied into the Ecuadorian Amazon.

After the film, as with the others in this series, a panel assembled in the front of the theater to discuss the issues that it raised. The panel consisted of Dr. Dina Lopez, professor and department chair of Geology; Alex Jones, an OU senior studying Environmental and Plant Biology; and Dick McGinn, a retired linguistics professor who is heavily involved in writing the Athens Bill of Rights.

They discussed the issue of the Cofán people seeking a western education for Hugo as a means to better combat the oil interests invading their land.

“They’re not really heard if they stay in their community but they’re also put into a situation in which it’s difficult for them to become a student or to become a voice that can be heard even in America,” said Jones.

Dr. Lopez added, “Still you have some of the roots and some of the values from your culture, but it’s impossible that the person will not absorb the values from the other culture.”

Athens, Ohio, is battling the oil industry, as well. McGinn, the Athens Bill of Rights Committee, who passed a measure that banned fracking in Athens city limits, and environmental groups such as the Athens County Fracking Action Network (ACFAN) are fighting the installation of another injection well in Athens County.

“Is Athens County in so bad economical shape that we need to be the dump area for the fracking industry that is happening in other parts of the country?” asked Lopez, in reference to Ohio’s lenient rules on frack waste disposal. “I don’t think that any profit that we could get from that could justify to put the environment here in risk.”

Earlier this year the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that local governments cannot stop the state from drilling for oil and gas. McGinn hopes that Athens’ ban will stand up because it is based on a different premise from many others in the state.

“Do we or do we not have the right to govern ourselves and to protect our environment?” asked McGinn. “If you want to come in here and set up injection wells in Athens County, you’re going to have to come in here and claim that we have no rights. And they have to claim that in court.”

Oil and Water is a moving story that is ripe with instructive figurative language. First and foremost, oil and water will never mix. Some emulsifying agent may make them grudgingly coexist for a limited time and to a limited extent, but ultimately they will always separate. The oilmen sit atop and smother the water of the indigenous people below and mitigation efforts can only go so far. At some point, for the people to thrive, the oil must be removed.

The Spring Sustainability Series at Athena Cinema will run through the end of April. All screenings are free to the public.


Andrew is a recent graduate of Ohio University’s Environmental and Plant Biology Department who makes his own deodorant and chocolate. You can usually find him out in Waterloo or in Porter Hall helping with ecophysiology research. On the weekends, he works at The Village Bakery

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