Film

Reinventing the Way We Live: Interview with Ray McCormack

Ellise Fuchs

"If we wait (for a time without enough oil), then it is going to be very, very rough for us all. It’s not a question of if or when it will happen, it’s a question of how it will happen," says the director of A Crude Awakening.

Oil is our God. I don’t care if someone says they worship Allah, Jesus, Buddah or whoever. They actually worship petroleum.

-- Matt Savinar, A Crude Awakening

It’s one thing to eat poorly or smoke cigarettes and know that somewhere down the line, you may pay for your individual behavior with poor health. But it's quite another thing to participate in the destruction of a planet. The documentary, A Crude Awakening, presents the theory of "peak oil," namely, that because all crude oil sources on the planet have already been found, nonrenewable fossil fuel’s production will eventually enter a terminal decline. Whether you understand this peak to be approaching or already reached, the scenario is dire, given global oil consumption rates. Co-directors Basil Gelpke and Ray McCormack's well-researched and eloquent film doesn’t let anyone off the hook, no matter the size of your "environmental footprint." The Swiss production has collected numerous awards along its festival route. McCormack brought the documentary to Torino last fall for the 10th edition of Cinemambiente. He spoke openly and passionately about the reality of the peak and making his important film.

I’m curious about how you Basil Gelpke collaborated on the project, given that most of your work was in editing and post-production.

Basil had some of the material for a TV program he was making, and he approached me to produce the film. He saw the potential for a documentary with a theatrical release. He had the idea to make a film about this topic but I came up with the structure for the film. I found us an editor with whom I had worked before, who was half Swiss and half English, so that helped too. Basil would say things like, “Well that would be good,” and “That sounds like a great idea.” Then he would be off shooting in America or someplace, working on another documentary. I would call him up and say, “Look, we need some footage, we have holes in the film, I need this or that. Here’s a list of questions, go and ask these questions.” So we did collaborate, but in an unusual way. Often I would think up the content and he would go out and get it for me.

Concerning the archival material, did you do the research yourself in actual archives?

Basil found a lot of it, as well as myself, and then we had a couple of researchers, one based in Washington, who was our second unit director. Steve [Mencher], our Washington guy, actually went to Pennsylvania and met with the Amish man who was in the film. There are lots of archive sources now that are online and can be accessed. And there was an awful lot of material to go through. There were three of us doing most of the research, Steve, Basil, and myself.

There was humor throughout the film. I remember looking around the theater and seeing these horrified faces, even as I really laughed at certain points.

Yes, there was a very conscious effort to sweeten the pill a little bit, because some of the conclusions that we reached are quite serious and quite heavy. I think you need to give people a little break before you introduce the next heavy idea.

The interviewees aren't all the typical green or left-leaning types, including a Republican Congressman and former Bush advisor. Did you have any trouble finding people willing to be interviewed?

Very few people didn’t want to speak. There were a couple of people in oil companies or who run foundations that support the production of oil. They never said they didn’t want to be in the film but we couldn’t quite get them to commit. But to a large degree, the people in the film kind of selected themselves, because they had written books on the issues. It could be partly because Basil is Swiss and he has a very serious journalistic reputation and many years of experience in the field, so that people trusted him to do a fair job. Another thing is that the message is more convincing if you have a variety of interview subjects. I would guess that, with the exception of maybe one or two people interviewed, the rest were to the right of the political spectrum. They could be considered conservatives with a small "c." I also think that when you have such people telling you this message, that we do have a problem and that our dependency on oil is problematic, since the production is going to decline, that it is very effective. You wouldn’t really expect the heads of Greenpeace, WWF or environmental activists to say anything else. But when you hear it from an ex-CIA man, the ex-General Secretary of OPEC or an energy investment banker who has been and continues to advise within the U.S. government, then it’s all the more convincing.

It seems ironic that the young lawyer, Matt Savinar -- who was less conservative than most interviewees -- said he probably wouldn’t vote for a politician presenting such a bleak picture, who asked for cutbacks in personal consumption of petroleum.

Most of the people in the film are these middle-aged white men, and we needed to have a little bit of a contrast and have somebody who comes from the age group to which the film is really targeted. Matt also kind of selected himself because he has conducted an awful lot of studies and investigations, and he’s come to some logical conclusions, having done all that work. He’s quite eloquent, and maintains a sense of humor.

Were you ever tempted to go with a famous spokesperson or personality?

Most people who make environmental films or documentaries think that if you have somebody famous as a presenter or a voiceover, that it might help get people to watch the film because there would be a familiar voice or face. But we didn’t want to end up doing a Leonardo DiCaprio film or an Al Gore film. If you heard the people who were in the film, you heard the message and the information firsthand, not narrated through someone else. In this way, you can come to your own decisions and interpretations and not have it interpreted for you. Perhaps in a way, with the benefit of hindsight, we may have gotten more attention for the film if we had done it a different way. But who knows? We made that decision and we’re very happy that we did, because I think the film works this way.

Tell us about how the film is being distributed.

Well, we’re taking it around to festivals and at this point, it has been shown in every English-speaking country. In America, it's been shown on the Sundance Channel through a contract that promises it will be shown continuously over the next two years. The DVD route is very interesting because it gets out into stores and there is a big and promising advertising campaign along with research all done before the initial sale date. In this way, there is preparation and promotion done beforehand, so that the DVDs don’t just get put on the shelves with the hopes that people will find them.

This film doesn’t let people off the hook or suggest it will all be okay in the end if you just recycle. It argues for a major mind shift. Do you believe people are capable of making such changes?

Without being too apocalyptic about it all, I think these changes will be forced upon us sooner or later, because oil is such a unique substance. So we either have to prepare in advance for a time when there isn’t enough oil to go around or we wait until it crashes onto the shore and deal with it then. If we wait, then it is going to be very, very rough for us all. It’s not a question of if or when it will happen, it’s a question of how it will happen.

I appreciated what you said at the screening regarding re-localization and the efforts small communities are making.

Re-localization is sort of the mantra at this point. If you look at the kind of lifestyle that we lead, certainly in Europe, America, and the more industrialized countries, our supply lines are now so long. Almost everything that is manufactured or that we consume or buy in Europe and America comes from China. We’re very vulnerable if these supply lines somehow get broken. And we’ve lost a lot of the skills that we had 50 years ago which made us resilient as communities or as cities or towns and villages. People say that we can’t go back and it’s probably true, but we have to revert to being more independent and resilient as communities, towns, and cities.

I’ll give you an example. In 2005, there was a tax increase on diesel fuel in the UK which affected the truck drivers’ organization and their independent owners and operators of these big trucks that move everything around Britain. They blockaded the fuel depots. In three days, the supermarket shelves were empty. And there were people siphoning fuel from hospital workers’, doctors’, and nurses’ cars. It goes to show that we are so vulnerable and so dependent on fuel that if we don’t become more independent at a local level, at a community level, at a city and country level, then we’re really going to be in trouble. I don’t think it means going back to the lives we had 50 or a hundred years ago, when people hardly ever moved outside their villages. But we certainly are going to have to reinvent the way in which we live. Building local resilience and a sense of independence where you know that you can feed yourselves and you know that you can transport yourselves and you have your health system which is locally based: I think we must localize these services in order to survive.

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