Who: Francine Strickwerda is a documentary filmmaker who is a principal in Seattle-based production company, Hullabaloo. A former newspaper reporter, Strickwerda has teamed with producer and filmmaker Laurel Spellman Smith to co-direct documentaries Busting Out and Oil & Water. The latter was shot over a period of eight years, and follows Hugo Lucitante — born into the Ecuadorian Amazon Cofán tribe, but who attended high school in Seattle. His homeland has been environmentally devastated by oil pollution, brought on by reckless extraction practices. The film’s other subject is David Poritz, an American youth from Amherst, Massachusetts whose humanitarian efforts in the oil-ravaged Cofán lands led him to a chance meeting with Lucitante. Now in their 20s, the two work as environmental advocates with different approaches. Lucitante as a Cofán tribal leader living above untapped oil riches; and Portiz as founder of Equitable Origin –the world’s first company to “fair trade” certify oil as a means of ensuring less-destructive oil extraction. In the time since the events of the film, Petroamazonas (the national oil company of Ecuador) experienced a spill that occurred near the Cofán village of Dureno, causing the local river to once again run black with oil. Winner of the Green Planet Award Grand Prize at the 2014 Rhode Island International Film Festival, Oil & Water premiered on the (PBS) World Channel on September 21st, 2014. Camera In The Sun spoke with Strickwerda for an August 2014 interview about making the film, and her thoughts on its subjects.
Why did you decide to pursue making Oil & Water?
We did an earlier film about America’s obsession with the female breast, called Busting Out that was broadcast on Showtime. So we’ve taken on more issue-type documentaries. And this time, we were looking for a first-person story. Something very, very character driven. So we ran across an article in The Seattle Times about this amazing young guy who was graduating from college, who was from a tribe in the Ecuadorian Amazon. And he’d actually been living in Seattle maybe a couple of miles from my house this whole time for 10 years, and had grown up here. There was just such a compelling and interesting story. So we just got on the phone, and by that night Hugo’s family was actually arriving from the Amazon to attend his high school graduation. And so we were there with a camera to see his family get off the airplane.
The Cofán are a tribe of about 2,000 people — half of whom live in Ecuador. So his group is 1,000, and then there are 1,000 more in Colombia. And so, all of his tribe’s ancestral territory was really the epicenter of where oil development, and a terrible toxic disaster, first happened in Ecuador.
There was this young woman who came through Hugo’s village, who was 23 years old, and was a student from the University of Washington. She was there studying, and Hugo’s father asked her if she would be interested in taking Hugo to the U.S. to learn some English. They were really at a desperate point. Right now, they have a village in Zábalo that’s very pristine and beautiful and clean. But the oil companies are always encroaching, getting closer and closer. There’s oil under their village. So I’d say the next five years are really critical for this tribe. Will they exist the same way they’ve existed forever? It’s really, really hard to say. It’s a pretty scary time for them.
Hugo is this wonderful young kid with a great big heart. And ever since he was 10 years old, and he was sent to the US to get this education, he’s known that he’s expected to be a leader some day. He’s had this amazing opportunity that’s been given to him, and he wants to do the most he can with it. But it’s a really difficult thing to look at from his perspective. The village that he’s from, that world is so different. The cultures are so night and day. The cultures are oil and water really. In his culture, he’s expected to be their definition of what being a man is — being able to hunt, and marry early, and have a family, and provide for your family. In our culture, it’s to get a college degree. So we’ve always watched him and thought he’s been doing double duty. Because in order to be a leader, he still has to be recognized as a man in his culture. But he also needs a college degree in our culture to really be a mover in the world. He’s come from a village rich in resources, but it’s very cash poor. Expectations are so high. All he has is this high school diploma, and it’s just really tough. He’s been going to college off and on in Seattle. But financially, it’s a terrible hardship.
How did you become aware of David Poritz?
We were doing background research about the case against Texaco, and looking at what happened in Ecuador, and we ran across attorney Cristóbal Bonifaz. He’s no longer involved in the case, but he did file the first class-action lawsuit against Texaco. So we were researching Bonifaz, and learning about the case against Texaco [now Chevron], and we found out there was another young man who had worked with Cristóbal — David. David had talked his way into an internship working on the case when he was 14 years old. It was almost unbelievable. And we were just really intrigued at this idea of telling a story about two young people who almost seem to have traded places in a way. All of a sudden, we had this incredible fish out of water story. Two guys who were able to really excel in a world that wasn’t really theirs to begin with.
Now David is traveling all over Latin America every day meeting with oil executives, and speaking Spanish. He’s definitely moving in some power circles. But even more important is his experience living and working with indigenous people in the Amazon. We have a scene in the theatrical version of our film where David and Hugo take ayahuasca together. It’s a very sacred practice among indigenous people, but you see it represented in popular culture here as a recreational drug. For indigenous people, it’s a sacred, serious ritual. And he does this, and is with the people in this way, and it says a lot. It’s something that other indigenous people look up to and respect. And I think when people see David in the film, they’re wondering is he going to become an oil man. Is he going to be pulled over to the other side? But his roots are very deep with the people.
How does oil pollution impact the Cofán?
There was a time where people woke up in the morning and they’d see big blobs of oil floating past them in the river. There were days where they’d have big spills, where the river would run black with oil. `And this is going back some time. They’ve improved the conditions, at least on the surface, so that there’s been a good deal of remediation work. What [the oil companies] did initially with the dumping and spilling of oil, was they didn’t line the pits. It’s something that in the U.S. was a common practice, to line the pits so that the toxins wouldn’t seep into the groundwater. But they just didn’t do it, because there was no Environmental Protection Agency in Ecuador. Some remediation work has been done, but it’s really questionable what quality standard they were held to in this process. Oil sludge is still seeping into the drinking water.
There was a time when to keep dust down, the streets were just soaking in oil. They were just dumping oil on the streets. And some people were actually wiping it on their skin, because they were told that it was good for their health. And David was looking for some kind of project that would bring awareness to people from the community where he lived in Amherst. It was mostly an awareness project. Because obviously if it’s in the drinking water, just getting the oil off your feet isn’t going to do a lot. But it was a way for him to get really deep into NGO work. He shipped hundreds of pairs of shoes from his community in Amherst down to Ecuador. Then he started doing other kinds of projects, like backpacks and school supplies for kids in the schools, and medical supplies. He tried different things. That’s what’s so cool about David. He’s been on the ground, and he’s really tried different things. And when it doesn’t work, he adapts. That’s what brought him to wanting to start this “fair trade” certification company for oil and gas.
The Cofán, because they’ve been living with oil companies, and have been under assault for 40 years, they have a fairly sophisticated understanding of what they’re dealing with. And yet, maybe one of the things that Hugo will do to help is bringing awareness and being the face of the problem to the outside world. Maybe it’s one of the biggest things that he can do with his cross-cultural skills. Also, we were excited when we found him, because he’s culturally both American and Cofán. He’s so relatable. And I think that it puts a real face on the problem in a way that’s just really hard to do when you’re telling a story about a problem.
The Cofán have some great leadership, and have a strategy for survival. And as Hugo says in the film, “We’ve survived this long. We must be doing something right.” I think that’s true. They have a strength that impressed me. That they’ve held out this long, I find it very inspirational. To us, it seems like life there is a lot easier. On camera, it’s beautiful. It’s this rich lush jungle. But for an outsider, it’s also a very dangerous place, and a very hard place to survive in with bugs, and snakes, and the heat.
I think we wondered, “Would Hugo, after living in the US for 10 years — might he just decide to stay here?” Would he decide if all this pressure was too much, and just say, “Forget it. I want a different life, and I’ve got a chance. I’m gonna take it.” But he absolutely is completely committed to helping his tribe, and he always goes back to the village. I think the connection is just so powerful for him.
What’s your approach to getting this film to audiences?
It’s definitely a David and Goliath story. It’s a story about a fight for resources. But more than that, we really positioned this as a character-driven coming of age story. Because these two boys, born into this really unique situation, we see them grow up over the years. And the transformation for both of them is pretty huge. So we’re hoping that it’s not going to be just an advocacy or issue piece — that there are things that people get from it that make it a story that’s got wider interest and appeal. Our plan for it now is that it’s going to be on [PBS] World Channel on September 21st. It was funded by ITVS [Independent Television Service], and the MacArthur foundation, and others. So our first stop is there. We’re doing the festival circuit. We do think we’re going to have a very strong educational run with Bullfrog Films. We never really considered theatrical, because that’s just too difficult these days.