Among the 45 films showing at next week’s anticipated Olympia Film Festival, a dramatic and heartfelt documentary by Evergreen State College alumna Laurel Spellman Smith and her co-director, Francine Strickwerda, stands out.
Oil & Water, which shows Wednesday, November 12 at 3p.m. at the Capitol Theater with both directors in attendance, centers around two boys fighting to save a piece of the Amazon rainforest that had been decimated by the oil industry. But this is no typical environmental movie. Oil & Water is also an inspiring buddy movie and a coming of age story. The film follows two charismatic boys who are so different, they are themselves like oil and water. Yet both are compelled to take on a common cause in the face of frightening odds. Hugo Lucitante, from the indigenous Cofan tribe in Ecuador wants to save his tribe from extinction. David Poritz, from Amherst, Massachusetts is trying to revolutionize the oil industry.
Most people are aware of industrial encroachment into the Amazon rainforest, but few people know the extent of the devastation beneath this rich ecosystem in Ecuador. From the early 1970s to the 1990s, oil companies contaminated vast swaths of pristine jungle by slopping billions of gallons of toxic waste into unlined pits. Oil & Water portrays this environmental disaster, and the damage oil companies are still wreaking today, from the unique perspectives of two young people. (deleted last sentence fragment here)
Hugo, sent at age 10 by his tribe to get an American education, graduated from Seattle’s Bishop Blanchet High School in 2006. David first became aware of the oil catastrophe while researching a 6th grade school project and made a commitment to bring justice to the Amazon. This award-winning documentary by Spellman Smith and Francine Strickwerda follows the two teenagers as their paths intersect in North and Latin America over the next six years. The film explores the hazards and pressures the two young men face as they carry their cause into adulthood, and also the positive difference they make for their communities and the world.
The film also features animated sequences by 2014 Stranger Genius Award Winner and Evergreen alum Drew Christie, a frequent contributor to the New York Times Op-Docs. “Using animation allowed us to tell parts of the story we didn’t have footage for,” said Strickwerda. “It’s been fun to see how people actually talk about the animation as if it was actual film footage, which is interesting because it’s so distinctively Drew’s work. We loved collaborating with him.”
Spellman Smith graduated The Evergreen State College in 1997. This is her second partnership with Strickwerda; they previously partnered on a documentary called Busting Out, which examined Americans’ attitudes toward breasts, from awkward early puberty to fatal breast cancer. Spellman Smith has directed two other documentaries, The Corporal’s Diary and Faith and Fear: The Children of Krishna.
Strickwerda and Spellman Smith have numerous stories of their time in the Amazon over the eight years they worked with the Cofan Tribe. They tell of giant bugs, of slipping and sliding in mud, and of annoying their Cofan hosts, without whom they “would have been toast,” said Strickwerda.
Though they admitted they often looked like buffoons while trying to film in the Amazon, they persevered, and it paid off. “Looking back, we had no idea that Hugo and David would become such fascinating young men. We didn’t realize just how close the oil companies were to making another assault on Cofan land. And we certainly didn’t imagine that we’d be telling the story of a startling effort to revolutionize the oil industry,” said Spellman Smith.
Said Strickwerda, “We are hopeful that the Cofan will be able to save their culture and their land."