Saturday, 19 July 2014

Louisiana Story (1948)

En Louisiana Fortælling
”Louisiana Story” is a ”documentary” about oil drilling in the Louisiana bayou area. It is special in the sense that instead of giving a dry or factual description of the bayou or of oil drilling we see both with the eyes of a 12 year old Cajun boy. He moves around the wetlands in his canoe, do some fishing, plays with his raccoon and has a fight with an alligator. Then the oil people move in with a floating derrick and he watches with wonder this monstrosity, which is for now is the most interesting thing in the neighborhood. The drilling suffers a blowout and seems to have failed, but the boy pours some magic salt into the well and soon the well pours oil out to all the happy consumers.

That is about it.

This is a pretty enough film and clearly the aim was to capture some moods and some magic, but the result is unfortunately rather dull. At 78 minutes this movie is about 50 minutes too long. That may sound a bit harsh, but I am quite frank here. The purpose of a documentary is to document something, to relate some facts or at least present us with a reality. There is no facts here. In fact it is all fiction. What we get is a number of tableaux of what the bayou looks like and how from the eye height of a child this can be a magic place. We see some pictures of some birds, a (tamed) raccoon and a vicious alligator (that must die for its suspected transgressions). This same imagery could easily have been compressed to 10 minutes. The 15 minute drama with the alligator seems entirely unnecessary. It is almost as if they were thinking hardly what sort of drama they could cook up and this was all they could think of.

Then there is the oil drilling. Again we learn absolutely nothing except getting some nice pictures of engines and drills and what looks like terribly dangerous work. The blowout is impressive, but we never learn why it happened or if this was really a bad thing. Apparently they just angle the drill a bit and so they get down to the oil. What we do get is a lot of pictures of the boy crawling around on the derrick and that is just super interesting…

As you may well have gathered by now I was not terribly impressed with this film. That the copy I watched was in a poor condition with blurred pictures and poor sound did not help much. I feel I got a snapshot of what looks like an interesting environment, but that I learned very little from it. I know the intent was to create a magic firsthand view, but that was ultimately rather boring. Sorry.

This is a movie by Robert J. Flaherty, the renowned American documentarist, known to readers of this blog from the movies “Nanook of the North” and, at least nominally, “Tabu”. I have the editors of The List suspected for adding this film simply to give Flaherty another entry. Frankly I find “Nanook of the North” a far more relevant entry and “Louisiana Story” rather inconsequential. That Flaherty had a habit of editing the reality to his liking eventually making his “documentaries” pieces of fiction rather that reality does not exactly help.

What is interesting about this film is all the things it does not show and what that say about the mentality and attitude of the age.

Where the 1948 audience saw the modern world and its progress and wealth arriving in a backward region promising prosperity and happiness, a modern viewer may see something else. What I saw was heavily polluting oil industry intrusion into an un-spoilt and delicate ecological zone.

In these post-Deepwater Horizon days it is difficult not to get that creepy cold feeling of foreboding down the neck when the derrick comes floating down the river. The blowout just seems to confirm it. We have just seen all that wildlife and now it may be all over, coated in thick crude. Oh dear.

I am a geologist, many of my friends work in the oil industry and although I am in wind energy I am intimately familiar with the problems of exploiting resources in pristine areas. There is a very good reason why EIA’s are made before drilling, digging or building. In many places the impact can be contained and the risk is low as long as you are aware of them, but some areas are just too sensitive and this area in the film is exactly such a place. The odd thing is that the film actually makes a point of saying exactly that, but then moves along with a great welcome to the oil industry, entirely blind to the hazards. The concern of the landowner is not a spill or the intrusion, but that they simply will not find any oil. We truly live in a different age.

Then there is modern-world-meets-indigenous-people issue. In this case the Cajun are locals. They a curious to the drillers, but that is about as concerned as they are. I have no idea what the contact said, but in return of the oil wealth underneath their land the Cajun family now gets a new pot and the child gets a new rifle. A minor upgrade from glass beads and mirrors. I may be exaggerating here, but just for comparison I went last year to Brazil to a region called Rio Grande del Norte. This is a place where the countryside is very poor, I mean African poor, both in terms of land and people. Really, it is a place that breaks your heart. But it is an extremely windy region and the area is now being developed for wind energy. I doubt these villagers actually owns the land, but all the villages I went through were getting sidewalks, sanitation, power and jobs and that despite none of the turbines were really close to the villages (well, in relative terms). The bead and mirrors had become wealth that actually increased the quality of life in return for an impact that had no practical consequence for the villagers or valuable ecological zones.

I digress, but those were my thoughts watching this film. Too little happened to keep my attention on the screen and instead I was left to wonder what these people would be thinking if the oil found its way into the wilderness. Now there is an adrenaline kick.   


  1. The only thing I learned watching this is that evidently, Cajun spit has magical properties. What a waste of an hour!

    1. A total waste. The information level was rock bottom.

  2. I thought this was a very simplified version of what was going on. My only real good thing to say about it was the cinematography, which from how you described your copy, was something you didn't get to see.

    1. No, the quality of the print was too poor. I wonder how much better it would have been with a better print, but I doubt I would have liked this film any better.