An oil rig idles in the Moray Firth, Scotland ©J. Ashley Nixon
In conversation with Dr. Michael E. Webber (University of Texas at Austin) today I was reminded of some of the work he and his team are doing on the role of film in the further (better?) understanding of energy, society and the environment. Michael is an Associate Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Deputy Director of the Energy Institute and runs research programs including looking at the interface, or stress nexus between energy and water. He also likes to sit in ‘the movie chair” in his role as Executive Producer and Host of Energy at the Movies. One of his big passions is to “change the way you think about movies”, especially those featuring energy.
Energy at the Movies
On the Energy at the Movies blog site there are about fifty (and growing) films described for their relevance to energy. You may find it strange to see included a seemingly innocuous “kids film” like Mary Poppins (1964). This well-loved musical fantasy still has that young (at the time) ’60s generation singing out A Spoonful of Sugar and other infectious ditties. But there are some serious social points about burning coal, the London Smog and air pollution, even if they are voiced by Dick Van Dyke in a barely passable cockney accent. Climate change wasn’t on our radar then but it features via some references to melting ice caps in the super-villain talk within Despicable Me II, another film on the Austin list.
Oily Soap Operas
My own first memory of energy in film comes from television. Beverley Hillbillies in the 1960s and then (the original) Dallas in the ’70s, were two very popular American TV series that seemingly ran for years with narratives punching out the social and economic (not much room for the environment then) climbs and falls, the loves, joy and frustrations that come from oil resources and their attendant wealth in California and Texas.
More serious, but still made in a commonly approachable soap opera style, was Roughnecks, a BBC television series from the 1990’s. This conveyed the risky work, camaraderie and tensions amongst a group of oil workers. Onshore scenes were around time off in the Scottish/European capital for oil & gas, Aberdeen. Offshore, it was about life on The Offshore Osprey, a fictional name for the Dan Countess, turned over to the job of film set while it idled away working for real drilling and production work in the North Sea.
Geopolitics of oil and gas
Other more recent films featuring energy have brought out some of the geopolitics and community politics, both for and against, around the development of hydrocarbons. In Syriana (2005), for example, political, legal, economic and social aspects abound in a story about the world influence of oil.
Other recent offerings have taken a documentary-style approach, often deadly serious as in Gasland, Gasland II, FrackNation, Promised Land, (all about fracked gas), The Last Mountain (about coal) and H2Oil (about oil sands/tar sands, whichever is your preferred term).
Oil Sands Karaoke, on the other hand takes a more humorous look, yet makes some key social points about the communities and migrant workers that deliver these hydrocarbon energy products out of northern Alberta. All of these films have generated strong positive and negative support, sometimes polarizing the debate around the environmental and social challenges and opportunities around the future of energy.
In to the centre ground comes the work of Director Gregory Kallenberg and his two series, The Rational Middle. In these films, there is a desire to balance the treatment of energy, both its societal benefits as well as the environmental and soil challenges associated with production and use.
Energy at The Movies
Michael Webber and his team at the University of Texas at Austin have a research program that takes a look at 70 years of energy on the big screen. Energy at the Movies is an hour long educational documentary, available on PBS and via YouTube, that illustrates the history of energy using Hollywood films as a roadmap. The key part of the research is understand the ways that films influence how we think about energy and, in turn, how we (consumers and energy concerned citizens) influence energy policy.
In Part II of Energy in Film, I will short-list a few films (big screen and television) that stand out for me in terms of their drama, tension, even comedy and soundtrack. All featuring energy.
Let me know what is your favourite energy film and how these influenced you/might influence policy/direction on energy in the future?