Capturing energy’s impact on film

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Thursday, Jan 15, 2015 - 1:50 pm

Energy is a pervasive element in our world, affecting our lives in countless ways every day. That’s a core understanding behind the Energy Initiative and its cross-university philosophy of engagement, education and research. And it's vividly illustrated by a Bass Connections project team that is using film to explore the role of energy resources in post-conflict regions, and how can they be used to promote peace.

The project team, led by Erika Weinthal of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Liz Milewicz of Duke University Libraries, is now in its second year of partnering with the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP) Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch to organize a decade's worth of footage taken by UNEP assessment teams. The team is also producing films that examine energy's role in conflict and how organizations such as UNEP address human and environmental concerns once conflicts are over.

Still from footage of UNEP’s environmental
assessment of Ogoniland.
© UNEP. All rights reserved

"Energy resources play many roles in post-conflict regions," Weinthal explained. "They're important for basic livelihoods such as fuel for cooking or economic activity, and they can provide an important source of government revenue – oil is an especially good example of this. If they're not managed well, there's the potential for further misuse and environmental deterioration, such as illegal logging of timber for fuel, and the lack of transparency and accountability in the oil sector can lead to corruption and the poor use of revenue from the resources."

The team is characteristic of the Bass Connections program in that it brings together a group of people with highly dissimilar skills to focus on a topic of broader societal interest that is relevant to each team member.

"Our student team members come from across all learning levels — undergraduates ranging from visual media studies to environment to public policy, MEM [masters of environmental management] students, students from the masters in fine arts in experimental and documentary arts, a candidate for a Ph.D. in English," Weinthal said. "They all bring different skill sets ranging from documentary experience to field experience to research."

The team is digitizing and cataloguing hundreds of hours of film taken by UNEP's Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch as part of its post-conflict environmental assessments. The footage shows environmental sampling, community awareness meetings, local training sessions and more.


As they go, team members are using the footage they find to make educational films for UNEP and for classroom settings. Last year, they produced a film about conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Team members also worked on a trailer for a film on oil and community participation in the Ogoniland region of Nigeria.

"The Nigeria case is extremely complicated because it involves both trying to figure out who was responsible for the oil contamination and pollution in the Niger Delta and agreeing on a plan for clean-up and remediation," Weinthal said. "The UNEP assessment was the first step in bringing all the stakeholders together to assess pollution in the delta and to lay the groundwork for programmatic planning."

Students handling the footage find the experience is almost as vivid as being on location with the UNEP teams.

"I have been witness to UNEP activities ranging from interviews conducted on small patios with local chiefs to seeing dead mangrove forests surrounded by spilled oil that creates a sheen on the river water like the appearance of accumulated puddles in gas station parking lots," Phia Sennett, now a junior in her second year on the team, wrote last year in a post on the Bass Connections in Energy blog. "Even my untrained eye can sense the magnitude of this environmental damage."

Phia Sennett at a recent team

Sennett, who is studying environmental policy and visual and media studies at Duke and, as a Robertson Scholar, geography at UNC-Chapel Hill, wrote that viewing the films allow the Bass Connections team a way "to bridge time and physical distance [that] is basic to our understanding of how energy resources impact post-conflict communities."

"While logging these films, I am so engaged in the scenes passing in front of me that I am sometimes surprised when I am not passed a cup of tea during the recorded stakeholder meetings, and when I take off my headset after hours spent cataloging, I often feel like I am still rocking in the UNEP water collection boat," she wrote.

Weinthal and Milewicz agree on the value of this footage for situating students in places and issues they might not otherwise witness firsthand, especially when they wouldn’t be able to travel to countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia or Gaza, or move as freely as the UNEP team does. Through watching and logging hours of footage, students immerse themselves in the assessments in a more tangible way than just reading the reports.

"They can’t go to Afghanistan, but they can watch the UNEP working in Afghanistan and talk to their representatives who were on the ground there," Weinthal said.

A year ago, original team members faced a job that was daunting to say the least. They started from scratch to view and carefully document UNEP's footage, while at the same time selecting pieces that could be woven into one story. On top of that, most of the students had no background in filmmaking.

That work had "a unique leveling effect," Milewicz said. "Everyone had the opportunity to become an 'expert' on particular footage and the people and issues it covered, by taking the time to watch and describe it."

Team members work on project plans for the
 Spring 2015 semester

This year's team has the benefit of dealing with film that has, for the most part, been logged and indexed. But there’s enough 'unknown' footage left to present them with the challenge of documentation, including working with a few members of last year's team to fine-tune the work.

"The first project team actually helped revise the logging protocol to make it easier for new team members to describe the footage. Their suggestions were excellent, and endorsed by the new team as a straightforward, useful process to follow," Milewicz said.

The project's usefulness is expected to extend long beyond the Bass Connections teams' existence. Because each film will be specific to an energy resource, issue or country, Milewicz and Weinthal say, the material will continue to serve as a resource for building future visualizations of these issues.

UNEP has agreed to deposit copies of the assessment footage in Duke's Rubenstein Library, Milewicz said. "We also expect that future courses offered through the Nicholas School of the Environment will use both the original footage and students' resulting films."

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