2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018
Shadow films: picturing the environmental crisis
One certainty exists in our global crisis: we respond to the possible demise of life on Earth based not only on what we personally experience but also on widely distributed pictures.
Disturbing images of environmental degradation populate our screens: dying animals, people struggling to survive in inhospitable conditions, disfigured bodies, floods, toxic water, devastated land, and mountains of trash. We also encounter greenwashed images of vehicles that supposedly protect our environment by using less gasoline or reducing plastic in their production or transporting bicycles to remote locations or contributing to clean-up projects. Pictures now constitute our world more than actual landscapes, and while they expand our reality into infinite realms, they also provide ammunition in ideological battles over the environment.
We inevitably accumulate eco-imagery in our minds. New imagery merges with what we have seen in the past in what I call shadow films. This internal collection conjures up relevant pictures from all sources without necessarily distinguishing between actuality and fantasy, documentary and fiction. Our personal eco-imagery has implications for film viewing: both fiction and documentary films rely on the organization of ideas regardless of the mode in which they are delivered. When we watch documentary films, they encourage us to consider our internal archive of gripping and memorable fictional sequences, and we blend the restrained evidence in front of us with familiar fictional plot lines. Likewise, fiction films can conjure up documentary evidence of threats to our planet. Knowing about the actual existence of a frightening scenario makes it more compelling, and knowing that a fictional response to environmental crisis could have real-world applications boosts its believability and importance. Our shadow films expand each time we watch a film of any kind, giving our viewpoints elaborate storylines to support or challenge them.
Research shows that we understand stories because our minds create models of their events, explains psychologist Jeffrey M. Zacks (21). He uses the term event model to refer to the "representation in your head that corresponds systematically to the situation in the story" (21). While an event model is not identical to the story we are following, it is "accurate enough that you can use it to run simulations that can tell you about parts of the situation you may have missed and to infer what might happen soon" (21). The event models we create to make sense of a film draw on information we have accumulated from all sources (Zacks 25). I propose that when we watch an eco-film, our event model enables us to comprehend it, and its story joins all of the other stories and images in our minds to create an elaborate shadow film with both documentary and fictional components.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of climate change and global environmental destruction, deniers like to rely on doctored images to make claims to the contrary. A fine line separates the trickery that makes the photographic and digital arts possible by creating the illusion of three-dimensionality and movement, and the trickery that misrepresents urgent environmental issues. Anyone can create or find pictures to support any view. For the powerful forces invested in preserving the status quo, even limited environmental protections that threaten traditional modes of corporate profit-making provoke fierce opposition. Corporate stakeholders wield political power through lobbying and donations, and, increasingly, they hold government positions. A 2016 study by the Center for American Progress Action Fund found that 34% of American Congress members denied climate change and had been paid over $73 million in contributions by oil, gas, and coal companies. Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who famously claimed that climate change is "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," has reportedly accepted more than $2 million from the fossil fuel industry (Herzog). The fallout from political inaction means that people have lost their lives in the U.S., China, Nigeria, Ecuador, and Peru, among other countries, because of the oil, gas, and mining industries' toxic practices and attacks on opponents. The propaganda battles fought with images inflame a war with catastrophic consequences.
Even those with noble intentions freely manipulate visual evidence or cause unintended consequences. Environmentalists often hold individuals accountable for the ecological crisis, writes historian Finis Dunaway, obscuring the much greater role of industrial practices and policies put in place by our elected officials: "Deflecting attention from corporate and government responsibility, popular images have instead emphasized the idea that individual Americans are personally culpable for pollution and other environmental problems" (2). Dunaway argues that saturating people with guilt-inducing images in a "moralistic cleanup crusade" has not been an effective way to build a movement for an economic and political overhaul (6).
The environmental wars heated up with the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency in 2016 on a platform hostile to environmental regulations. Not surprisingly, he filled his cabinet with corporate leaders and announced American withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement within his first few months in office. Just as quickly the Interior Department redesigned its website to emphasize human use of federal land and water instead of preservation. Stewardship, according to the new website, means "ensuring that these lands are available for recreation, job growth and creation, and responsible energy development." Gone are the extensive photographs of wild animals and glorious landscapes that graced the previous administration's website. Instead Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is center stage on the website's galleries with image after image of him visiting national parks and monuments, riding horses, shaking hands, striding over scrubby terrain, posing with individuals and groups, and giving the thumbs-up. Meanwhile the Environmental Protection Agency eliminated all of the pages on its website documenting the scientific climate change research conducted by previous administrations. Needless to say, conservationists held no hope that the Trump administration would meet environmental challenges successfully.
Effective legislation fails to exist in part because poor people and people of color disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental deterioration. Wealthy white communities avoid the worst consequences of climate change, a temporary privilege of status and money. Journalist and social critic Naomi Klein puts it clearly when she writes that "The reality of an economic order built on white supremacy is the whispered subtext of our entire response to the climate crisis." She goes on to argue that the inequity is not random, but rather "the result of a series of policy decisions that governments of wealthy countries have made—and continue to make—with full knowledge of the facts and in the face of strenuous objections" (Klein "Why"). Klein reports that the far right goes so far as to cast climate-change casualties as desirable by gloating that death and destruction in vulnerable regions strengthen wealthy centers of power ("This Changes" 52). These deniers dismiss the first victims of climate change as troublemakers.
Among the objectors is the Black Lives Matter movement, which argues that inaction on climate change is part of systematic racist policies in the United States. Native Americans lead another protest frontline, as seen in North Dakota where the Standing Rock Sioux occupied land slated for the Dakota Access pipeline to call attention to its desecration of ancestral lands and threat to the Missouri River. In response, the Obama administration enacted a temporary halt to the pipeline's construction, but the Trump administration immediately reversed the decision and allowed the pipeline's completion. Media coverage, however, left indelible images of protesters marching with banners, standing with raised fists, engaging in prayer circles, riding horses, being threatened and attacked by law enforcement with police dogs, and getting shoved into police cars. On Instagram, YouTube, and Vimeo the images gained global currency.
Parched denuded land, vistas of trash, mountains of electronic refuse, putrid toxic waste: the catastrophic consequences of our failure to safeguard life-sustaining ecosystems appear in photographs showing evidence of damage on every continent. These photos at their best can induce us to advocate for radically changed priorities worldwide to protect the environment. They alert us to distant devastated regions and support passionate calls for change, such as Pope Francis's Encyclical on the Environment with its astute comment that "we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor."
But photographic evidence of injustice has to compete with the massive number of images inundating us and exhorting us to buy more stuff. Historian Daniel J. Boorstin wrote about image glut as early as 1961, noticing that images had superseded reality, that "what dominates American experience today is not reality" (x). To escape this deceptive reality, Boorstin advises us to "disenchant" ourselves, moderate our expectations, and "begin to suspect that there is a world out there, beyond our present or future power to image or to imagine" (260). Boorstin denounced our manufactured realities while acknowledging that they were inevitable given the rapid rise of advertising and public relations.
Now that we cannot return to life without media overabundance, we can assess how a steady diet of images has transformed us. I turn to the example of one of my students, who reported to me after spring break in the middle 1990s that he and a friend had taken a road trip from Rhode Island, where I was teaching at the time, to the Grand Canyon. After arriving late, they spent the night at a campground. Early the next morning they realized that they needed to return home for classes, so at dawn they went to the park's visitor center where they watched a video about the Grand Canyon, then got in their car and drove away. They had not seen the Grand Canyon. My student was unfazed by the substitution of the copy for the original or the fact that he could have watched the same video in his Rhode Island dormitory room.
The last several decades recalibrated our perceptions to a far greater extent than Boorstin could have envisioned. What does this mean for us as spectators, especially as viewers of documentary films that purport to tell us something about reality? Our responses cannot be pure and unadulterated. After all, as film scholar Patricia Aufderheide points out, "Media affect the most expensive real estate of all, that which is inside your head" (5). I ask: how do the images in our heads influence the way we engage with information?
Film scholarship tells us that we watch documentary films differently from fiction films. To understand the difference, film scholar Vivian Sobchack turns to Belgian psychologist Jean-Pierre Meunier's theory of cinematic identification, which suggests that we are most attentive when we watch fiction films because we gain new knowledge as we watch and cannot rely on our own experiences. Meunier observes that we are least attentive when we watch home movies because their images transport us into our own memories of people and events (Sobchack 244). Documentaries, according to Meunier, occupy a midpoint on a spectrum between home movies and fiction films, requiring us to pay close attention but also inviting us to consider what we already know. Nevertheless, these distinctions are flexible, making our identification "fluid, dynamic, and idiosyncratic" (Sobchack 253). I see this fluidity in the way that both documentaries and fiction films transport us into the stories and images they have each previously left in our minds.
In eco-documentaries, we find circumstances made familiar by fiction films, in particular, although not exclusively, genre films, which depend upon audience familiarity with their conventions. Documentaries evoke science fiction with global threats to our survival, horror with disfiguring diseases in humans and animals, detective or courtroom films with attempts to rectify an injustice, westerns with individuals pitted against each other and powerful institutions, and film noir with malevolent forces and convoluted explanations. These generic references contribute to our shadow films. And while we expect documentaries to adhere to facts, our personal shadow films can introduce any number of situations, however extreme, capable of heightening our concern or guiding us toward potential solutions to problems. Far from diminishing a documentary's capacity to move us, its shadow films can strengthen our understanding and intensify our response.
In the following pages I trace how two eco-documentaries— Arid Lands (Grant Aaker and Josh Wallaert, 2007) and Crude (Joe Berlinger, 2009)—reverberate with shadow-film implications by evoking fiction films. Many other films qualify for analysis, sometimes evoking each other even in their titles, as do the documentary Garbage Warrior (Oliver Hodge, 2007) and the fiction film Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981). Both films depict a time in which people scavenge the despoiled Earth, and they center on a resourceful "tragic eco-hero" (Murray and Heumann 91) who uses discarded objects in creative ways while battling hostile forces. In Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior's chaotic post-nuclear-war world, survivors kill each other over access to scarce fuel. Max, played by the young Mel Gibson, transforms from a cynical loner into an ingenious savior after becoming involved with a rag-tag group of settlers struggling to survive. Garbage Warrior documents the efforts of an actual individual—the American architect Michael Reynolds—to prevent ecological catastrophe by radically redesigning the homes in which we live. These two films illustrate how dramatically the documentary and fiction film modes can correspond. From their combustion comes an energized viewing experience.
The radioactive West: Arid Lands and genre conventions
Arid Lands concerns 586 square miles in southeastern Washington State contaminated by approximately 475 billion gallons of hazardous wastewater left after the area became the nation's largest plutonium producer for nuclear weapons ("Hanford"). The now-closed Hanford site stores two-thirds of the high-level radioactive waste in the United States. A government cleanup effort spends $4 billion annually with limited environmental results, except to attract new residents to a boomtown economy. While toxic waste seeps into the groundwater and rivers, new suburban housing covers the adjoining land and in the nearby Tri-Cities, cheerful references to atomic bombs are commonplace. Farms, fruit orchards, wineries, and a fishing industry vie for precious water, and members of the Yakama Nation whose ancestors were forced onto reservations watch their treaty provisions erode. Western and science fiction tropes haunt the film, from its soundtrack to its cinematography, making possible potent shadow films in our minds that dramatically convey the mess we have made.
The film belongs to a subgenre that acknowledges the American West's primacy in producing and testing nuclear weapons; philosopher John Shelton Lawrence calls them "nuclear ecofilms" (38). Examples include Them! (1954), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), The Atomic Cafe (1982), Desert Bloom (1983), Silkwood (1983), Thunderheart (1992), and The Plutonium Circus (1994) (Lawrence 38). The subgenre now includes nuclear eco-video games such as Fallout: New Vegas, in which something called radaway can diminish the effects of radiation poisoning in the post-apocalyptic year 2281.
When nuclear eco-films are documentaries, they cannot help but blur their distinction from fiction films by evoking science-fiction and westerns to follow the West's trajectory from wilderness to garden to radioactive dumping ground. In so doing, they spotlight the long history of disaster in the American West; to obtain fertile land settlers transformed existing conditions in cataclysmic ways, including the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and New Deal-era dams. With the birth of the nuclear weapons industry in 1941, a new transformation occurred. Hanford was one of two sites chosen to produce plutonium for the Manhattan Project. Residents were evacuated from 670 square miles of land in 1943, including the Yakama who had signed treaties giving them permanent rights to their land. Fifty thousand workers arrived from across the country for top-secret work. Once production began, workers poured radioactive waste from the nine nuclear reactors into the Columbia River or ditches dug alongside its banks.
They built tanks for some of the waste, and a million gallons went directly into the ground. Hanford provided the plutonium for more than 50,000 nuclear weapons over forty years of frequent nuclear testing in Nevada and the South Pacific. Ultimately the plant constructed 177 giant tanks to hold a million gallons of waste per tank, and about 1/3 of those tanks have leaked. When Hanford closed in 1989, it became the largest and most expensive Superfund site in the country (Titus 65).
The West bore the brunt of nuclear production and testing in the U.S. and suffers from its lethal consequences, heaping irony onto frontier mythology. In the mythic version, hardworking pioneers transformed unspoiled wilderness into fertile farmland to sustain the nation in perpetuity, but in reality, industry irreversibly contaminated large regions of land and water. Bounty gave way to blight. Arid Lands represents this cataclysm by harnessing western and science fiction interest in human expansion into new territories. Both genres often acknowledge that new settlements can bring dreadful consequences as often as they bring opportunities.
Western film iconography appears in Arid Lands in long shots and slow pans of shrub-steppe terrain and big skies, recalling the genre's wide open vistas. The film evokes stock characters with talking heads, such as a thoughtful Yakama elder with gray braids, Russell Jim, who speaks about his people's loss of land and fishing rights, bringing to mind the noble savage beloved of revisionist westerns. A preacher describes his mission to create an enormous thundering waterfall next to his church to display the glory of God, a surreal variation on the church as a symbol of civilization. Old-timers pit themselves against newcomers: family farmers with orchards disparage the newly arrived vineyard owners whose grape fields gobble up the land, and both condemn the developers responsible for ticky-tacky suburban encroachment; two geographers, one wearing a bandana around his neck like an outlaw gunslinger, deride the new generation of residents who lack wilderness skills; a fisherman criticizes the dam operators and the policy of raising and lowering the river depending on Portland's water needs, which sends fish floating across the banks when the water is high and kills them when the water recedes; an elderly displaced couple is nostalgic for the farm they owned before the federal government seized it. Conflict defines every issue, including access to scarce water and its safety for drinking. And young people in the nearby town of Richland play the role of "savages" by getting pierced and tattooed at the Atomic Tattoo shop, where mushroom clouds are a favorite design. Twangy guitars and loping rhythms on the film's soundtrack use the western's musical conventions.
Science-fiction features intermix with these western traditions: super-secret government work on catastrophic weapons; the careless and bungled discharge of billions of gallons of hazardous waste; a contaminated region half the size of Rhode Island; radioactive waste seeping into a deceptively idyllic river used for fishing, boating, and drinking water; pristine shrub-steppe terrain that owes its existence to the fact that it is unsafe for human habitation; cannibalistic insects that devour each other unless they are put in a stupor induced by cold storage; salmon loaded into giant tanker trucks and driven to their destination because dams block their upstream journey; and repetitive electronic notes on the soundtrack.
These sci-fi aspects of the film resonate with the strange actual history of atomic testing in the West. To assess the consequences of nuclear attacks on humans, the government built "Doom Towns" in the Nevada desert with houses containing household products and dummies (Titus 14). The military repeatedly prioritized its desire for close-up inspection over the known risks of contamination (Titus 14). Observers in New Mexico at the first atomic test wore sunscreen and dark glasses and lay face down on the ground. Subsequent testing burned and killed cows and horses grazing nearby with radiation poisoning (Jacobsen 102). In fact, tests on dead animals after their exposure to dirty bombs (those that simulated the crash of an airplane carrying a nuclear weapon) revealed that the half-life of plutonium is 20,000 years (Jacobsen 113). Plutonium is so deadly that "one-millionth of a gram...will kill a person if it gets in his or her lungs" (Jacobsen 113). Even so, communities and pop culture embraced all things atomic. In Las Vegas, swanky people sipped atomic cocktails, women could get the atomic hairdo, the Sands Hotel held a Miss Atomic Bomb pageant, and the Detonators of Devastating Rhythms and Atom Bombers played songs like "Atomic Bomb Bounce" (Titus 93). Billboards for Atomic Motels and Atomic Cafes transformed the Western landscape (Titus 88). Nuclear blasts were all the rage!
After this brief buoyant period came the reality of atomic residue. Sites that suffered the greatest destruction, like Hanford, are now called national sacrifice zones in federal documents (Titus 158)
The notion of sacrifice has a long history in Western frontier ideologies. It characterized early settlers who perished in harsh conditions and, as historian Richard Slotkin points out, it was also evoked for General George Armstrong Custer, whose 1876 death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn was seen by some as "a kind of atoning sacrifice, almost Christ-like" (10). Sacrifice also echoes in revisionist western films that celebrate "noble" Indians who quietly mourn the slaughter of their people. According to frontier mythology, sacrifices had to be made for the Western garden to bloom.
Radioactivity, however, poses a substantial challenge to the myth's promise that sacrifice leads to abundance. Ironically, it also arose from the myth, for, in Slotkin's words, "behind the mystique of the 'virgin land' lay the principle of the 'resource Frontier'" which beheld the West as a mother lode of resources in addition to land: "precious metals, industrial ores, supplies of cheap labor" (531). Western resources included beaver pelt, gold, silver, and oil, along with waves of immigrant laborers. The promise of "virgin land" and resources drew the nuclear industry West and led to a domino effect of sacrifices that are still toppling over.
New residents of the area around Hanford do not have sacrifice on their minds. They see Hanford as a land of opportunity not unlike the wild-West or outer-space frontiers, in this case funded by federal cleanup dollars. As one of the film's commentators points out, some of the same people who rail against big government handouts themselves reap the benefits of Superfund money. Inconsistencies abound, and the film ends with the situation at an impasse. Environmentalists warn that radioactive damage is irrevocable, and economists predict a likely financial crash after the government ends its involvement, warnings that people living and working near Hanford do not want to believe. Meanwhile, the despoliation continues, with news reports of tanks discharging up to 300 gallons of "highly radioactive slurry" per year ("Six Storage Tanks"). In 2017, a tunnel storing radioactive material collapsed, causing an emergency for hundreds of workers at the site and renewing fears about widening contamination.
How should an environmental disaster of Hanford's magnitude be addressed and competing interests satisfied? Answers do not exist in real life or the film. As a documentary, Arid Lands follows the conventions of reportage, and therefore it can only refer to the future as unknown. But the film's generic borrowings create shadow narratives in spectators' minds, and these address the question that Arid Lands cannot answer: "What does the future hold for Hanford?" Hypothetical answers occur in sci-fi films that represent social conflict in the aftermath of apocalyptic destruction, and westerns concerned with land use and abuse. These shadow film can conjure up frightening images of blighted land and creatures, widespread illness, birth defects, a breakdown of law and order, vigilante violence, and death.
The cheerful optimism of residents who are riding a wave of economic prosperity resembles oblivious characters ignoring the warning signs in the pre-catastrophe scenes from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and The Terminator. Sadly, the shadow films conjured up by Arid Lands do not offer a solution to the problem of Hanford. But they can guide us toward the conclusion that this kind of environmental disaster should never be allowed to happen again.
The poisoned Amazon: Crude and underdog narratives
Crude documents a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 30,000 Ecuadorians against the Chevron Corporation for its contamination of the Amazon rainforest. This award-winning documentary film makes its case against Chevron with damnatory footage shot in Ecuador of oily sludge, decimated indigenous populations, deformed bodies, dead animals, and profound suffering. We follow the efforts of a modest young Ecuadorian lawyer joined by a brash U.S. attorney to take on the oil giant, whose representatives deny the charges with their own lawyers and public relations machine. The film reveals how the oil industry has ravaged villages along the Amazon River. Conventionally observational without stylistic flourishes, Crude relies on a steady accumulation of evidence to support its case. Its unremarkable style did not, however, prevent it from delivering a blow to Chevron, so much so that Chevron sued the filmmakers and launched a high-profile ad campaign touting its commitment to preserving the environment and protecting indigenous people, along with, of course, its own reputation.
Crude is an effective exposé, with its familiar documentary conventions conveying the information necessary to understand the legal clash between Chevron and the plaintiffs. But, I would argue, the film's power to win its viewers' sympathies on the side of the Ecuadorians lies in part in the way it evokes the horror, detective, science fiction, courtroom, and western genres. Crude provides a compelling example of the shadow-film phenomenon about two-thirds of the way into the film when we see the young Ecuadorian lawyer, Pablo Fajardo, who is the plaintiffs' lead prosecutor, gazing at a grave. We already learned that he grew up in rural poverty and at 14 years old went to work in the oil fields, where he observed how oil extraction degraded the environment and sickened its inhabitants. His concern inspired him to go to law school, and he had been out of school for only three years with very little litigation experience when he took on the case against Chevron. In the cemetery sequence, he explains that this is the grave of his brother Wilson who was killed by men who were actually after Pablo because of his work against Chevron. They tortured his brother so severely before killing him that they left nothing of his face to recognize. We watch Pablo sweep debris off his brother's headstone. He refrains from speaking about his sorrow; he simply describes what happened to his brother, and his somber face and gentle gestures convey his grief. The scene uses medium and long shots, avoiding potentially intrusive close-ups. What we see is a trope from the western genre: a solitary man mourns and renews his commitment to persevere against a powerful and corrupt institution, despite the odds. A similar scene exists in My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946), in which Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) quietly visits the grave of his murdered brother James before dedicating himself to finding the killers and upholding justice. Even if we have not seen My Darling Clementine, Crude might evoke in our shadow film the western convention that links quiet anguish with a fierce desire to fight on.
Crude also evokes courtroom dramas. In several powerful scenes Pablo Fajardo and Chevron's lead attorneys, Adolfo Callejas and Diego Larrea, each make their case, sometimes before an Ecuadorian judge—the case moved from the U.S. to Ecuador in 2003, ten years after it was filed in the U.S. courts—and at other times before court-appointed investigators. Most of these scenes take place outdoors at contaminated sites instead of in an actual courtroom, but the legal thriller's conventions still prevail, in particular the tension evoked by hearing a principled lawyer's passionate testimony countered by a slick attorney's deceptive counterarguments. Chevron argues as its primary defense that it inherited the problem of contaminated wastewater in the Amazon when it merged with Texaco in 2001, that Texaco had produced the toxic spills during the 1970s and 1980s, and that Chevron cleaned up Texaco's mess after the companies merged. According to Chevron, the Ecuadorian national oil company Petroecuador, which has controlled oil production in the country since 1990, is solely responsible for the current toxic conditions. Will Chevron's defense sway the judge, or will he believe Pablo Fajardo's evidence that Chevron failed to remediate Texaco's extensive damage? These sequences derive suspense from our knowledge of courtroom films such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Philadelphia, Erin Brockovich, or Michael Clayton. By summoning dramatic shadow scenarios, Crude makes the case against corporate greed even more powerfully than what we actually see and hear.
Crude evokes a nightmarish science-fiction shadow film about our own neighborhoods getting engulfed by oily sludge bubbling up from beneath the ground and poisoning our water, causing our pets to sicken and die and our relatives and neighbors to grow large malignant tumors. Crude at times resembles a terrifying horror film—young children with swollen bellies and rashes, a duck lying on its back twitching uncontrollably, thick black toxic goop oozing through the ground under people's homes. But Crude can also evoke a shadow film narrative in which victims have agency and succeed in getting Chevron to pay damages. This shadow film would combine a documentary's educational rhetorical strategy, what film theorist Bill Nichols calls an "informing logic," with what he calls a "compelling story," the primary mode of fiction films (43). Nichols explains that these two rhetorical strategies are not mutually exclusive, but that an informing logic tends to dominate in documentaries. Shadow films heighten the compelling stories evoked by a documentary's informing logic.
Crude illustrates the phenomenon known as the curse of natural resources which leaves people worse off after the discovery of valuable resources on their land. Investigative journalist Tom Burgis writes that "[t]he resource curse is not merely some unfortunate economic phenomenon, the product of an intangible force; instead it is the consequence of systematic looting" (7). He points out that nineteenth-century colonialist policies evolved into contemporary strategies for corporate enrichment, involving "phalanxes of lawyers representing oil and mineral companies with annual revenues in the hundreds of billions of dollars" that impose "miserly terms on... governments and employ tax dodges to bleed profit from destitute nations" (Burgis 8). Social scientists write extensively about possible causes for the natural resource curse, but given the extractive industries' enormous power to monopolize wealth, of course local people lose out. Their increasing poverty correlates with growing corporate wealth.
Crude ends on a hopeful note. Vanity Fair publishes an article about the case championing Pablo Fajardo as a hero. He wins the CNN World Heroes Award in 2007 in the category "Fighting for Justice." Trudie Styler, who along with her husband Sting founded the Rainforest Foundation, visits polluted Amazonian villages and donates barrels that gather and purify rainwater, providing potable water for 4,000 people. Sting and The Police perform at a concert for environmental awareness in New York with Pablo Fajardo in attendance. The leftist Rafael Correa wins the Ecuadorian presidential election in 2007, raising hopes that he will hold multinational corporations accountable instead of catering to them like his predecessors. And an independent investigator appointed by the Ecuadorian court holds Chevron responsible for disastrous environmental pollution and recommends a fine of up to $27 billion.
The Ecuadorian court delivered a guilty verdict against Chevron in 2011 (after Crude was released) and imposed a $19 billion fine, later reduced to $9.5 billion. But the case continued. Chevron refused to pay anything and filed a lawsuit in the U.S. courts. A series of trials pitted Chevron against Crude's director Joe Berlinger, with Chevron demanding that he turn over all of his outtakes from the film, claiming that they would reveal improper conduct on the part of Steven Donziger, the American attorney who represented the Ecuadorian plaintiffs. Chevron accused Donziger of bribing an Ecuadorian judge and an independent investigator to obtain a guilty verdict. In a 2014 verdict, a U.S. District judge did not dispute the existence of deadly oil pollution or Steven Donziger's good intentions, but pointed out that "an innocent defendant is no more entitled to submit false evidence, to co-opt and pay off a court-appointed expert or to coerce or bribe a judge or jury than a guilty one" (Krauss). He ruled in favor of Chevron, which declared itself exonerated of all charges and not liable for any damages to the Ecuadorians. Donziger denied that he engaged in bribery and planned to appeal, arguing that Chevron bribed a former Ecuadorian judge to fabricate testimony against him. That former judge has since admitted that he lied about receiving bribes from Donziger, and revealed that Chevron paid him bribe money for his cooperation (Hershaw).
For viewers of Crude, it might not come as a surprise that questions arose about Donziger's conduct; we see his aggressive style and frequent use of foul language throughout the film. His approach directly contrasts with Pablo Fajardo's restrained, unpretentious manner and earnest belief that the truth will triumph. Irony lies in Fajardo's principled pursuit of justice getting undermined by an American attorney from the land of Chevron who may have derailed the case. And yet this scenario too can conjure up a shadow film from fictional antecedents: the Lethal Weapon scenario of two men fighting for the same cause using incompatible methods. Fajardo and Donziger are real people, but once they are videotaped and edited into a film, they also become familiar characters in a shadow buddy-cop film.
Our shadow films could suggest that with patience and continued effort, the Amazonian communities might still receive restitution from Chevron, despite the increasing unlikelihood of this outcome. On June 19, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would not hear an appeal of the verdict that ruled in Chevron's favor. In the meantime, Joe Berlinger made another documentary: Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger. It follows the 2013 trial of the notorious fugitive from justice, gangster James "Whitey" Bulger, who, along with his thuggishly nicknamed associates, controlled criminal enterprises in eastern Massachusetts during the 1970s and 1980s, and was found guilty of participating in 11 murders and 31 counts of racketeering, money laundering, weapons possession, and extortion. With such an evocative narrative, is it possible to watch a documentary about Bulger's trial without conjuring up vivid shadow films? Is it possible to watch any documentary without supplementing its story with the compelling fictional images that circulate not only around but also within us?
Just like a movie
We perceive not just films but reality itself as an image and sound stream, as becomes apparent when we say that something we have witnessed is just like a movie. Movies try to replicate reality and reality appears to replicate movies. Media scholar Geoff King analyzes this phenomenon in the context of 9/11, observing that images of skyscrapers exploding in a string of blockbuster films from the 1990s uncannily resembled the planes hitting the World Trade Center's towers, producing déjà vu for many spectators looking at the towers fall (47). King clarifies that reality has not literally been subsumed by media constructions, despite some postmodern theorists' claims, but the visual and auditory presentation of each—their languages—are often alike (47). Television coverage of 9/11, for example, employed some of the same techniques as fictional spectacles, including continuity editing, sound bridges, and identification of heroes and villains (King 51-53).
The resemblance between actual catastrophes and movies exists not just in their appearance but also in our viewing stance, argues film scholar Bill Schaffer. In both, we cannot stop the course of deadly events and we have trouble forming our own individual responses. Movies confine our perceptions through camera placement, editing, sound, and character identification. Watching 9/11 events unfold in TV coverage or even on the scene produced a sense of helplessness, and this, writes Schaffer, constitutes part of the movie experience: "Terror and the moving image somehow 'put you in the same place'—or, rather, the same time, the time of lateness, in which one finds it is already impossible to respond, one sees the very impossibility of any response." Despite theories that grant power to the gaze (such as the male gaze inscribed in films that objectify women), the experience of watching the aftermath of terrifying events underscores our powerlessness. Helplessness, whether in real life or while watching a movie, is simultaneously dreadful and compulsive.
While we cannot prevent a catastrophic event after it has occurred, we might nonetheless feel as if we could take preventive action in a similar situation. This feeling enlivens the viewing experience, especially when we consider the ability of our shadow films to galvanize us, and this has implications for our responses to images of environmental damage. Unlike the events of 9/11, environmental catastrophes are ongoing and preventable. We know the causes of climate change and can take action against them. We know which human activities are poisoning people, degrading the land and water, fouling the air, destroying habitats, and killing off animal and plant species.
What we need is a concerted global commitment from governments and corporate leaders to do things differently, and for individuals to contribute at a grass-roots level. It is a massive unprecedented undertaking, but it is possible. So while we cannot undo the past, we can protect our future, and the movie experience has the potential to vitalize our efforts. Now more than ever, visual media and our own shadow films play an essential role in influencing what we think and do about our planet's future.
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