Thursday, May 15, 2008

Oil & Latin America: Three Films

Before Oil

Film: Caribe (2004, Costa Rica, Director Esteban Ramírez)

Pristine beauty. Calm waters & beautiful coastlines.

This is the untouched beauty of Costa Rica that the camera in Caribe returns to on multiple occasions to remind us what would be lost if the proposed oil drilling mentioned at the film's beginning would go through.

The story of the oil drilling/explorations off the coast shown in Caribe are based on a real episode in Costa Rica's history. In the film, before the oil drilling could start, explorations were made to determine how much oil there really was underneath the ocean. As part of the process, the oil companies exploded bombs in the seabed. This scared the fish away and the town's fishing supply was depleted. The town of Limon mainly survived on two income sources -- fishing and tourism. The environmentalist groups feel that once big oil moves in, tourism will take a hit and cripple the local economy. The groups turn to the locals to raise their voice and stop the oil companies.

One of the most respected town members is Vicente (Jorge Perugorría),

who owns a banana plantation. But his business is in danger of collapsing after a new European tax on Costa Rican fruit exports makes his supply less profitable to his exporters.

There may be more to Vicente's contracts getting cancelled and the audience is given an indirect hint. Vicente is told that because of the new European tax, the exporters only want to deal with big plantations and not independent producers. This could be an indirect way to force the local people out of a job thus making the lure of big oil and its promised jobs seem as the only option to move forward.

Vicente is torn between his principles to help fight the oil companies and the need to keep his business alive. The money offered by the oil companies to get his support is too tempting to turn away. Equally tempting is his wife's sister. The stress and madness lure Vicente away from his beautiful wife (below) into the arms of the sensuous sister.

Even if the oil issue was not around, a few early clues do indicate that Vicente would still have cheated on his wife. But the timing of his betrayal are interesting as they coincide with the arrival of the oil corporations which threaten the peaceful environment, while the new arrival of the long lost sister threatens his perfect marriage. As a result, both the paradise in his mind and around him are shook up.

When Oil arrives

Film: Le Salaire de la peur (1953, France, Director Henri-Georges Clouzot)

In Caribe the locals eventually fight away big oil and save their land. But that is not always the case. Most times, the promise of new jobs and money allow oil companies to easily move in. The town (or city/country) then depends on oil as the main source of income. Other industries may collapse as young & old rush to work for the oil companies.

At the start of Wages of Fear, we find men languishing in a sleepy un-named Latin town. Oil is the only work around as men earn their money working in the oil fields. There are plenty of foreigners who work in the town and want to save enough money to eventually leave one day. Mario (Yves Montand) is living the happy life between work and chasing a woman.

His good friend Jo (Charles Vanel) arrives in town for the sole purpose of earning money. We can tell he is not allowed in this place as just before he heads for immigration, he slips money in his passport. This ensures his passport gets stamped, without even a glance at the pictures of people on the wanted list.

Jo discovers an old acquaintance in the American boss of the Southern Oil Company (the initials SOC point towards the real life Standard Oil Company) and heads to ask him for work because he really needs the money. But he is told that things in this country are strict and Jo can't get work because of his past.

Things are quiet in town with work progressing at a slow pace until an emergency stirs things up. A fire at a remote oil field kills a few people and requires to be controlled before it threatens to rack up more financial losses. One way to curb the oil fire is to use explosives around the wild gushing oil station. For that, nitroglycerin has to be used.


  • Interestingly, Daniel Plainview uses this same tactic in There Will be Blood. And some of the shots of a man against the backdrop of black smoke reminded me of Plainview.

  • There is an interesting shot of three naked natives watching the oil fire. The three natives simply stand by looking at the fire and are told by the oil operator to go away but seeing that the locals don't understand his words, he walks away in frustration.

    In Caribe we see the local natives getting upset at the plans of big oil as that would threaten to take away the land they have lived on. One can infer that the three natives shown in Wages of Fear used to live on or nearby this land which is now being used by SOC.

  • Since the remote oil site is a few hundred miles away, it is a tough job to get nitroglycerin there because a spilled drop of nitroglycerin can kill an individual. On top of that, there isn't proper equipment and none of the trucks have shock absorbers or safety features to safely transfer this dangerous explosive. So the American bosses decide the only way this can be done is to get two trucks to carry the dangerous good there. They only need one truck load of nitroglycerin but two will be sent out in case one doesn't make it. One of the owners wants to pay the drivers "peanuts" but the American boss refuses to short change the drivers since they are going on a suicide mission. So the wage is set to $2000 dollar. Oh, and to avoid any problems the drivers will be hired from outside the union.

    Plenty of men show up wanting to get this deadly job because of the money.

    Eventually 4 men are chosen (including Mario) and once again Jo is shut out. But mysteriously, the German driver chosen does not make it to the 3 am departure time and magically Jo appears to take his place (it is clear that Jo did something to make the German disappear).

    As to be expected the journey of these 4 men and two trucks is tension packed and full of dangerous obstacles. The trucks have to go at a certain speed otherwise the potholes on some of the roads could cause the explosives to go off (hmm, the idea of not going above a certain speed limit reminded me of the concept in Speed).

    Some of the obstacles include a giant boulder in the middle of the road which has to be blown up using a pinch of nitroglycerin, a shaky bridge which the truck has to back onto in order to make a tricky turn and an oil lake.

    I believe there is a newer DVD copy of this movie but I found an older DVD in the original French language and no subtitles. But thankfully, three important sequences in the film are in English -- the meeting between Jo and the American boss, the discussion of the oil field fire and explanation of the dangers of the nitroglycerin transfer. This is all the information I needed because after the 45 minute mark when the two trucks head out on their mission, the tension of the situation kept me riveted and I hardly noticed time pass by or the fact that I could not understand most of the words. Such is the power of the images, the editing and camera work that words can't compete with the beauty of what is put on screen.

    Plus there are plenty of scenes which are just wonderful to watch. One such sequence involves Mario and Jo sitting in the local bar when Luigi (another person who gets picked to be one of the 4 drivers) asks the barmaid to dance.

    Mario is upset as this is the woman that he likes.

    Jo decides to stop the music.

    At first Luigi is startled but within a second he continues singing the song and dancing, much to the delight of the other patrons who clearly support Luigi.

    Nothing fancy about this scene but it is so free flowing and full of life.

    Some side effects of oil..

    Film: Keepers of Eden (2007, USA, Director Yoram Porath)

    The oil lake shown in Wages of Fear shows one of the side effects of oil pipelines and drilling is that oil could accidentally spill over. It becomes more dangerous when this spilled oil finds a way into a water supply. The documentary Keepers of Eden shows nauseating scenes of the harmful effects of oil tainting fresh water supply resulting in skin diseases and sores in people who use the water source. The areas shown in the film are some sections of the Amazon in Ecuador.

    Keepers of Eden shows that the blame not only lies with big oil but with a government that rushes to allow oil companies to move in. In Caribe Vicente tries to argue that there are ways for oil companies to be "eco-friendly". Ofcourse, he did not believe that himself but he was speaking those words because he needed the money from big oil. He eventually decides that he can't sell his soul but what the film showed was that in certain circumstances even a proud local like Vicente was willing to forget the environment because of the money offered. And that is the problem really. Oil means money. Why else was Daniel Plainview so eager to drill in There Will be Blood and switched over to oil exploration from gold/silver hunting? And when the bottom line is money, then sadly the environment and other safety measures take a back-seat. A few years ago, the cause of the environment was put forth and it seemed that someone would listen. But as each passing day goes by and the price of oil dominates the media headlines, it is hard to believe that events/scenes shown in Caribe & Keepers of Eden won't continue to repeat themselves.

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