The eye of the camera, the empathy of film

November 20, 2013

By Phia Sennett

I found it interesting to read the September 18 blog post from the Bass Connections in Energy U.S. Climate Policy Options team, which describes how their group is sifting and scrolling through US legislation concerning oil refinery processes. Our own team — Exploring The Intersection Of Energy And Peace-Building Through Film — is also wading through an enormous amount of information as we work to view and catalog the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) video footage of environmental assessments. It’s fascinating to watch (and catalog) historically rich information such as crude oil contaminations in Nigeria, incurred by oil company operations as well as clumsy illegal siphoning by community members. UNEP video records are the foundation of our Bass Connections in Energy project, designed to create film-based outreach and education materials to promote effective energy and environmental management processes.

As I log descriptions of this footage as part of our project work, I am subject to the past experiences and decisions made by the UNEP videographer. Wherever she goes to record, I go, too. I have been witness to UNEP activities ranging from interviews conducted on small patios with local chiefs to seeing dead mangrove forests surrounded by spilled oil that creates a sheen on the river water like the appearance of accumulated puddles in gas station parking lots. Even my untrained eye can sense the magnitude of this environmental damage. According to an accompanying UNEP environmental assessment report, some wells in Ogoni communities contain hydrocarbon contamination at least 1,000 times higher than the Nigerian drinking water standard (p. 11, Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland).

Last spring at the Full Frame Festival here in Durham, I was struck by a quote attributed to the late war photographer, Tim Hetherington, who compared his camera to an intimidating gun. Hetherington used a tripod to ease his subjects, distancing both of them from the violence. I began to evaluate this metaphor while watching the UNEP videos from Nigeria. Within the many hours of film I have cataloged since last spring, I vividly recall one scene of a woman walking with a tall water container perched on her head. She slows down to pass the UNEP team along her path, intentionally peering into the camera and even curiously returning later to the site. In another video clip, a cassava farmer with a diminishing crop harvests shifts his eyes more often to look at the camera than at the interviewer. The camera’s intriguing, direct presence and community members’ willingness to connect with it may have in fact spurred community attention and created opportunities for our Bass Connections team to better understand the gravity of the situation, the operations of UNEP, and to in turn connect with our future audience.

While logging these films, I am so engaged in the scenes passing in front of me that I am sometimes surprised when I am not passed a cup of tea during the recorded stakeholder meetings, and when I take off my headset after hours spent cataloging, I often feel like I am still rocking in the UNEP water collection boat. The camera’s ability to bridge time and physical distance is basic to our team’s understanding of how energy resources impact post-conflict communities. Film allows for this empathy.