POSTED Mon. Oct 13, 2014
'Oil & Water' Explores Cajuns and Oil industry

The website for locally produced documentary film Oil and Water, one of the most buzzed movies coming to the New Orleans Film Festival,. reminds visitors that 210,000,000 gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico from Deepwater Horizon in April 2010, and that America has since seen a 60 percent increase in permits issued for deepwater wells. The site’s infographs show Louisiana experiencing 16.75 square miles of land loss a year, 38 to 50 percent of it caused by oil and gas production.

On the other hand, the site also points out that oil has created 64,669 Louisiana jobs, paying almost $6 million in wages. Herein lies the complex issue at the heart of the movie.

“The oil industry revolutionized Cajun living,” points out Oil and Water writer and co-producer, journalist David Winkler-Schmit, echoing lines from his film, which explores the symbiotic but tenuous relationship between Cajun culture and Big Oil. The movie depicts the oil industry as taking hold of Louisiana beginning in the 1930s. “Suddenly dad’s got a steady paycheck, all the kids are going to college, they have paved roads,” he says. “Then on the other hand, because of these companies, their land is disappearing. It’s the most disappearing landmass in the entire world! It’s sinking faster than anything.”

Four years ago, Winkler-Schmit and photographer Alan Robert Davis were thrown together on a small freelance assignment to cover the BP disaster in the Acadiana area. There they met George and Carol Terrebonne (pictured above), owners of the wholesale and retail Seafood Shack, and the eventual main characters of Oil of Water. The Terrebonnes trace their lineage back to the 1780s. Though their family has always lived off the land, when Davis and Winkler-Schmit met them after the BP spill, they were forced to deal in imported Texas shrimp.

“We asked them, ‘What do you all think of the oil companies?’” said Winkler-Schmit. “And they told us, ‘We love the oil companies.’”

This conundrum triggered Winkler-Schmit’s journalism instinct, and he and Davis followed the Terrebonnes for the next three years after the BP spill, in an attempt to find out why and how Cajuns learned to love Big Oil. Viewers of the film, however, may come away with more difficult questions than solid answers. “We resisted the temptation to paint it in primary colors, like here’s the good guys, here’s the bad guys. It’s not that simple,” says Winkler-Schmit, who writes that the Cajuns’ “continued support [of the oil industry] exemplifies a core American value: the desire to provide for one’s family at all costs.”

“When you’re damning the oil companies you’re damning the Cajuns,” says Winkler-Schmit. “It’s Cajuns who own so many of the supply ship companies. Cajuns revolutionized getting stuff to the supply ships—sometimes the only people who can do this stuff is the tough Cajun people.”

Cajun history is as much a subject of the documentary as the Cajuns’ relationship with the oil industry, and the film meticulously traces the creation and evolution of Acadian culture: “The Cajuns who descend from…French settlers arrived in what is now Nova Scotia during the 1630s, migrated to Louisiana in the late 18th century after being forcibly deported by the British,” explains Oil and Water’s site. “During their time in Canada and later for more than a hundred years in Louisiana, they were isolated from the outside world, developing their own version of French, music and other cultural standards.”

The movie goes on to discuss the resiliency of these rural Louisiana people who overcame everything from Gulf hurricanes, to biases against the French language (even, at first, from the oil industry). But most of all, Oil and Water explores the ways in which Cajun culture accepts the oil industry as just another natural way of living off the land—albeit with sometimes grave consequences.

Oil and Water represents Davis’s first time as a director. Now 29, Davis first moved to New Orleans after graduating college from Tallahassee in 2008, to continue as a news photographer “in a place that has a lot of really interesting stories,” he says. Davis was affected by watching Louisiana’s post-storm coverage play-out close up. “Seeing how Katrina was covered kind of inspired Oil and Water,” he says. “I wasn’t seeing the coverage I thought it deserved, and then with the BP disaster, I saw that pattern of coverage in danger of repeating itself.”

Davis grew to feel that the focus on stories about people losing their livelihoods due to the BP disaster were unbalanced. “Most of us who use gas and oil, and yet gas stations are the only representation we see of this giant industry,” says Davis, who wanted to give viewers a peek into lives that are intertwined with Big Oil in more complex ways.

Oil and Water has shown at the 2014 Florida Documentary Film Festival, and will show again coming up at festivals in Boca Raton, Florida, Des Moines, Iowa, Biloxi, Mississippi, and this October 19th at 8:49pm at the Joy Theater as part of the New Orleans Film Festival.

Image courtesy of Oil and Water and Facebook.

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