‘Oil & Water': How SIFF movie gives a face to vital causes

Hugo Lucitante (left) and David Poritz look at signs of oil development in Ecuador. Credit: From the film "Oil & Water."

Good causes need good faces, and the battle to force oil and gas giants to adopt sustainable practices has such a face in Hugo Lucitante, a young Ecuadorian and a member of the Cofan Tribe in the Amazon Basin.

Articulate, handsome, educated in Seattle, Hugo is teamed with David Poritz, a product of elite New England schools but immersed in the culture and causes of the Cofan people, in a powerful and appealing documentary film, "Oil & Water", which premiers at Seattle International Film Festival on Tuesday and Wednesday.

They are an unlikely duo from the moment they meet — when Hugo, in a traditional Cofan canoe, sees David hitchhiking from a riverbank near Hugo’s remote village. As a teen in Amherst, Mass. David spent his summers in Ecuador’s Amazon Basin, where oil waste is linked to increased cancer rates. David and Hugo became friends and then colleagues in efforts to deal with oil exploration. 

Seattle filmmakers Francine Strickwerda and Laurel Spellman Smith first learned of Hugo in 2006 as he graduated from Bishop Blanchet High School. A Seattle college student volunteering in Ecuador, Miranda Detore, had brought him to Seattle when his parents and tribal elders saw an opportunity to educate a future leader.

Strickwerda and Spellman Smith bring their cameras to Hugo’s village, and into an ancient tribal ritual further binding Hugo and David. There is pathos as Hugo takes his motorized canoe past the fortified base of an oil company. “These are the big guys,” he observes; he cannot see inside or know what happens on land that was Cofan territory for centuries.

Cofans are at the epicenter of the Ecuadorian oil industry, but as the industry prospers the Cofans lack basic health care and education. They are a beautiful people, and Hugo has become their avenue to outside help. He formed a bridge to Seattle, and later returned to marry a young woman, Sadie, whom he had met at Blanchet. They have lived here and in Zabalo, Hugo's tribal village in Ecuador. They now have a daughter and Hugo attends North Seattle Community College and hopes to afford environmental studies at the University of Washington.

David has launched the world’s first project to certify oil and gas operations for sustainable practices. There are literally hundreds of organizations certifying sustainable practices — from forestry to coffee — but Equitable Origin, the company founded by David and Ecuadorian biologist Manuel Pallares in 2009, is trying to pioneer the practice in oil and gas. They hope later this year to do their first certification, of Pacific Rubiales Energy, a Canadian company operating in Colombia.

Strickwerda and Spellman Smith follow David into negotiations in Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, where he and Pallares bring together tribal leaders — including Hugo — and oil and gas executives.

The connection between Hugo and David takes the documentary into a personal life that is fascinating in its portrayal of the Cofan culture and environment. David sheds his suit and tie but one still sees a Brown graduate and Rhodes scholar. It is David who must negotiate with industry; he is EO’s president and public face, although he has hired an oil industry veteran as CEO. That is the pragmatic side of David, and there are hints that it may ultimately collide with the Cofan heritage of Hugo.

Near the film’s conclusion, the two tour a Petroamazonas operation that David sees as one that could be a “best industry practice” in the Americas, although “the envelope really needs to be pushed regarding the social side of it . . . what does real community engagement look like — it doesn’t look like intimidation.”

Hugo is on home turf here, and skeptical. He reminds David, “Native people are completely shut off from everything, from operations … especially the Cofans, nobody really knows what’s going on out there, we’ve had a bad experience in the past.”

The young men are both fluent in English and Spanish and deeply committed, but their roots were planted in different soils. By forming EO to tame the international giants, David is now an international businessman himself. We see Hugo and Sadie planting a new vegetable crop in his village: “I’ll be here — this is where you will find me some day,” he tells the camera.

Pallares, EO’s vice president, sums up the stakes: “Little communities like the Cofans are going to face a lot of pressure … basically, they feel cornered like that. Oil is not a sustainable resource; those fields are going to be emptied, and after 40 years, what’s going to be left for them?”

The conflicts and challenges in "Oil & Water" create unusual alliances, but much the same is seen in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle standup paddleboarders have joined First Nations people to fight Enbridge’s oil pipeline and export terminal at Kitimat, B.C. —  a collaboration that also led to a documentary film, "Standup4Greatbear." The Lummi Nation has joined with the Sierra Club and other established nonprofit organizations to fight a coal-export terminal in Whatcom County.

In every case, the mantra of the developers is the same: “We can create jobs and also sustainable development."

David Poritz believes it can be done; his friend Hugo Lucitante hopes so as well, but his people have been there before. "Oil & Water" tells us much about an international collision that always has a local story as well.

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