Energy and the American Landscape

Stratman, Deborah - Energy Country (USA, 2003).mp4 2017-04-26 17-12-35

Grant Fryc

As humans, we rely on the land we live on. Though we might not always respect it or take care of it the way we should, it is the most important thing…ever. The landscape of a given area and the way it is treated can tell you a lot about the people who live in that area. The underlying theme of this week’s films, with the exception of Ito Takashi’s Spacey (1981) is the American landscape and the relationship between the land and its occupants.

Deborah Stratman comments quite directly on this relationship in her film Energy Country (2003). Energy Country paints a harsh portrait of southeastern Texas and the oil industry that resides there. As the oil industry and American nationalism often go hand & hand, Stratman critiques US involvement in the middle east using a combination of both documentary and experimental film techniques. Visually, the film has the cues of the typical avant garde film in the way that the shots are composed and strung together; sonically, Energy Country takes a more  experimental approach than a typical documentary in some instances Stratman layers several audio tracks upon one another to create a chaotic effect. Clips of oil refineries and energy production facilities are layered on top of each other interspersed with clips of bombs dropping while found audio clips from christian radio play in the background. The voices playing over the fiery imagery speak of god and how he loves america. They speak of Islam and how threatening the religion is to the American way of life, mentioning that for the president to say that Islam is a peaceful religion is to “jeopardize all of the free world and America.” All the while Stratman is  showing us American bombs being dropped on a landscape below. Energy Country raises questions about  the ethicacy of the oil industry and the landscapes it affects. Internationally, the destruction caused by the American pursuit of foreign oil is disgusting. Domestically, though the destruction isn’t caused by the dropping of bombs, the effects of the polluting of American landscape by the oil industry are nauseating. This film focuses mainly on the domestic side of the industry and its effects on the landscape of Texas, but Stratman doesn’t shy away from the international issues surrounding energy.

In Energy Country,  clips of frantic stockbrokers running around the trading floor are collaged with clips of the pollution likely being produced by the energy corporations whose stocks are being traded. A clip of two men in a small boat on a polluted brown pond follows, the men speak about the quality of the “nasty looking” water and how when kids go swimming in the pond they come out of the water with an “oily film on ‘em”. They mention how surprising it is that the EPA hasn’t shut the oil facility (pictured in the background) down but “as long as they’re pumpin’ making money” the facility will stay open. The film ends with a shot of an American flag being burned in slow motion. In a 2008 interview with Millennium Film Journal, Stratman remarked that in making Energy Country she was doing the very same thing that the men burning the flag were doing: lurching for a tractable target. We are always looking for someone or some tangible thing to point the finger at, but almost always, it’s more complex than that.

One self-criticism of Energy Country that Stratman offers is that the work doesn’t clearly include Stratman herself as part of the problem. In her interview with Millenium film journal, Stratman noted that  “I think the video fails in that this is not evident, but I did want to include and implicate myself in this tendency towards angry dumbness. It’s my car after all that’s being pumped with gas. And the buzz of those electric trees sounds an awful lot like the buzz of my editing drive.” It’s easy to put the blame on the oil companies and the government and the lobbyists, but it’s difficult to admit that our complicity with the current state of affairs is what allows the degradation of our natural resources to continue.

A second criticism that Stratman offers of her work is that Energy Country is likely preaching to the choir. The people who need the film the most, will likely not see it. Still, Stratman remarks in her 2008 interview that she has “broadened the field of Americans I speak and listen to. Whether this will ultimately free the film from being stuck in the “avant safe” circuit seems doubtful. Because I have no interest in making a conventional documentary, and my aesthetic bag of tricks remains more or less the same as it’s been for the last twenty years. Which means that the venues available to me will inevitably be art houses and festivals and alternative euro channels and experimental film classrooms. But, and this is very important, I think when I show the film to the people actually in it — machine gun owners, Federal Border agents, retirees in their fully loaded RVs, high school football fans — these people will all say, ‘Yeah, that’s what freedom means to me.’” Energy Country raises an interesting question about the role of art in creating socio-political change: How can a work of art reach outside the range of the art world to have an effect on the issues it comments on? Is it a realistic expectation for an artwork to create change? 

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