In response to the often mythologised images of extraction, María A. Vélez-Serna (University of Stirling) lists the films that explore the material realities and render visible the abstracted operations of planetary mining.
Out to market: Ports and pipelines
This list started with a critical interest in the spectacle of resource extraction. Mining and oil exploitation have been a focus of intense fascination for filmmakers and audiences, as highly mythologised sites of heroic conquest over nature. This myth-making has been fed by the vigorous PR departments of oil companies (such as BP or Shell), state-run companies (National Coal Board), and national governments keen to associate extraction with development and progress. It has also featured prominently in more radical filmmaking, as it serves to dramatise the workers’ struggle and the power of solidarity.
The superhuman scale of extractive operations offers many opportunities for the technological sublime, as captured stylishly in the recent feature Anthropocene (Baichwal, de Pencier and Burtynsky, 2019), where one of the world’s largest diggers eats away at the German countryside. But while machinery permits this escalation, the vastness of the mine is matched by the depth of suffering of those who labour on its margins, like the open-cast miners in Behemoth (Zhao Liang, 2016) or the women who sift through the rubble looking for a scrap of silver in Mujeres de la Mina (Unamuno and Bystrowicz, 2014).
But is there a risk that the visual spectacle of enormous scale can distract from more critical perspectives on these images of extraction? As I tried to go beyond the spectacle of extraction sites, my focus shifted towards the connecting infrastructures that make possible the transformation of nature into commodity. Extractivism takes soil, subsoil, water, or living beings out of their local ecosystems, and places them on the global market. In order to become commodities, these portions of nature need to be transportable. Visualising transport is one way to draw attention to the relational nature of extraction, and contemporary mining as a “dense network of territorial infrastructures” in which extraction, manufacturing, and consumption are part of a planetary system (Arboleda 2020, p. 5). This connects to a growing interest in ‘infrastructural cinema’ that functions as an extension of material infrastructure by explaining and normalising it (Hayward Marcum, 2020).
This is a first attempt to gather together some variegated examples of moving image works that can throw some light on how to visualise this planetary mine. Like Leshu Torchin’s playlist on capitalism, this is an attempt to think with film on the concrete forms of abstract nouns. It is an eclectic selection clustered around two commodities: oil and coal.
The most obvious signifiers of an infrastructure of commodity transport are the pipeline and the oil tanker with its attendant port facilities. Previously, they only tended to gain visibility when disaster struck. More recently, however, pipeline projects have become an important site for community resistance.
- Modern Trade Route (1955) This short sponsored by the British Iron and Steel Federation follows an oil tanker across the Mediterranean and the Suez to the Persian Gulf and back to Europe, highlighting the interlinked histories of oil and steel.
- The Sullom Voe Project (1982, 11min) This public relations film from BP frames the construction of the Sullom Voe oil terminal on Shetland as an ecologically responsible, community-endorsed project, while also emphasising the enormous volume of the construction work.
- State of Happiness (Lykkeland, 2018) Norwegian series about the 1970s oil boom. Stylishly shot and with an air of Mad Men, this drama follows the discovery of a large North Sea oil field, as the consequences of the operation transform the local economy and the lives of a small-town farming community. On BBC4 and iPlayer.
- Indigenous resistance to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline resulted in a fierce struggle in 2016, with the Standing Rock camp as its emblematic site. Thousands of people spent the bitter winter on the banks of the Missouri river. A vast amount of reportage and documentary material exists about the movement, including the feature documentary Awake, A Dream from Standing Rock (2017). This film features some of the exceptional drone footage shot by a network of activists, notably Myron Dewey.
- Myron Dewey’s drone footage (available on his YouTube channel) stands apart from a lot of aerial imagery of extractive sites in that it has legal-evidentiary rather than aesthetic purposes. Activists’ drones, often shot down by private security, show the desecration of sacred grounds with the linear scar of the pipeline, but also the emergence of alternative infrastructures of survival, resistance and solidarity in the camp.
- Dislocation Blues (Sky Hopinka, 2017, 17min) resists the gradual simplification of the story of Standing Rock, holding space for doubt, reflection, and discomfort in the contradictions of collective action and its transformative affects.
While the use of coal for energy generation has declined substantially in Europe since a peak around ten years ago, the port of Rotterdam alone handled over 22 million tons of coal last year. Coal for Europe comes mainly from Colombia, Australia, Russia, South Africa, and the US.
- El Cerrejón, Colombia (Exxon, 1988, 10min) This sponsored short made in the early years of Colombia’s massive open-cast coal operation sets up a visual and rhetorical contrast between the indigenous Wayuu people and the mining industry. Comparable in some ways to the Sullom Voe film above, a carefully framed narration presents an idyllic coexistence between traditional ways and outsized machinery, with the loaded ship sailing peacefully away to Europe at the end.
- Coal for the World (Behiqualto, 2012, 8min) Short interview with an inhabitant of the area where the port is located, documenting the health and environmental issues it has caused.
- On the other side, Austrian artist Oliver Ressler filmed protest actions at the Port of Amsterdam, Europe’s second-largest coal port and where most Colombian coal enters Europe. Everything’s coming together while everything’s falling apart: Code Rood (2018, 14 min).
- Also on Cerrejón, The Good Life (Schanze, 2015) is a feature documentary on the ongoing tensions between local communities and the ever-expanding mine. When the mine (now owned by BHP Billiton) wrecks the livelihoods of indigenous farmers and wants to swallow up their village, the inhabitants are offered new houses elsewhere. The community’s mistrust of the mining company proves to be justified.
- Coal Money (Wang Bing, 2009). I was unable to find an online copy of this TV production, which I haven’t seen, but on the basis of its description and trailer it seemed worth mentioning in case anyone reading this has a copy that they can let me watch!
Thank you to Dr Philippa Lovatt for the conversations and film suggestions that prompted this playlist.
María A. Vélez-Serna teaches Film and Media at the University of Stirling. She studied at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and the University of Glasgow. She is the author of Ephemeral Cinema Spaces (Amsterdam University Press, 2020), co-edited Early Cinema in Scotland (Edinburgh University Press, 2018) and has also published on Colombian cinema history. She also sometimes writes a blog at http://www.outwith.xyz/