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Kelpie Wilson: Oil on Ice – Director Interview

Oil on Ice

Kelpie Wilson interviews Dale Djerassi, Producer/Director of Oil on Ice.
t r u t h o u t | Special

Friday 03 June 2005

Oil on Ice opened the UN World Environment Day Green Screen Film Festival in San Francisco on June 1. It will also close the World Environment Day activities with a special screening that is free to the public at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral at 1 pm on Sunday, June 5. For more information on Oil on Ice or upcoming screenings, please visit or call 415-593-0192.

Oil on Ice is a new documentary on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that will show you exactly why drilling in ANWR is such a terrible idea. But that's not the reason to watch it. The reason to see it is for the wildlife footage.

A young fox, its fur a patchwork of white and brown as its winter coat molts away, trots across the flowering tundra. It stops, turns toward the camera and lets loose a baby fox howl. Somehow, through the medium of camera and screen, you feel in your own innards the exhilaration of the arctic spring.

But there is nothing like actually being there. The producer/director team of Dale Djerassi and Bo Boudart traveled to Alaska to make this film and centered it around an 11 day raft trip on the Hulahula river which flows through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Dale Djerassi agreed to answer a few of my questions about the film.

Q: Dale, which came first, the idea for the raft trip or the idea for the film?

A: George W. Bush made drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge the cornerstone of his energy policy during his presidential campaign. The opportunity to take a trip down the Hula Hula River, which runs from the Brooks Range to the Beaufort Sea, arose around the same time. It seemed like a good idea to document the place that was at the center of the energy debate. But what began as a river rafting expedition, quickly evolved into a more profound and important journey.

The Hula Hula River threads the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and became the metaphorical thread of the story my co-director/producer Bo Boudart and I tell in Oil on Ice. It ties the refuge, teeming with wildlife, and the people who are fighting to preserve their way of life, to the policies that will affect them both. We set out to produce a project that explores the dangers and consequences that surround opening this protected place to oil drilling, but we also wanted to show alternatives to oil as the nation's primary energy solution. In the end, we believe that the film does both. We have received amazing feedback from the viewers. The film enables them to see for themselves that the Refuge is not the barren, lifeless place many pro-drilling proponents would have us believe. After seeing the film, viewers feel emotionally connected to this great wild place and they are inspired to take action. We are very proud of that.

Q: Was any of the wildlife footage shot on that trip?

A: Yes, some of it was shot on our trip and some of it came from other sources.

Q: Adeline Peter Raboff came along on the float trip. She is a Gwich'in Indian from Arctic Village, a small town inside the refuge. She is a writer and she expresses herself very beautifully about what the land means to her. What was it like to have her along on the trip?

A: Adeline's presence was really important in the making of Oil on Ice. Her presence was important to us as filmmakers because she brought an emotional human element to the film and gave the story we tell a lot of historical context. But the trip was also important to her. She told us stories about her grandfather and what the Arctic Refuge meant to her ancestors. She took us to Arctic Village for a Gwich'in Indian Gathering where, at the time, her son was the chief of the tribal council. There are a lot of voices in the energy debate, but the Gwich'in Indians, who are among the people whose lives will be directly and immediately affected by Refuge oil drilling, barely have a voice in the debate. It is morally imperative that their concerns be heard and addressed before bulldozers, tankers and trucks go in to their backyard to drill for oil. Adeline's is a passionate and eloquent voice that we are proud to have heard in our film.

Q: Obviously the Arctic Wildlife Refuge has some wildlife. And many people know that there are traditional native cultures that will be impacted as well, but to me one of the most powerful segments of your film is the segment on the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the long term impact of the crude oil that still coats the shores of Prince William Sound. Can you briefly explain those long term impacts?

A: Ricki Ott, a marine biologist who is featured in the film, is an expert on this subject and has devoted her life since the Exxon Valdez oil spill to the documentation of its effects. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) went to the Prince William Sound 12 years after the spill to investigate the long-term effects. What they found is deeply disturbing. There are residual oil deposits everywhere. Marine life productivity continues to decline, which means that carcasses are not necessarily washing ashore, but we could see certain species of fish that once thrived in the sound continue to diminish over time. In addition to the adverse environmental impacts, Exxon has yet to pay damages to the residents in the spill zone for the destruction of their commercial fishing and subsistence way of life. The Exxon Valdez disaster should serve as a reminder that even with the best of intentions and most sincere promises of responsibility, safety and minimal impact, the oil business is vulnerable in the hands of human error and Mother Nature.

Q: What sort of long term impacts we might see from oil development on the arctic coastal plain?

A: Drilling proponents claim that drilling in the Arctic Refuge would only have a 2,000 acre footprint. However, if the Refuge were opened to drilling, oil development would not be contained to 2,000 contiguous acres; rather it would spread like a spider web across the entire 1.5 million acre coastal plain - the biological heart of the Refuge. The claim that the footprint of oil production would amount to 2,000 acres is based on misleading math that only accounts for the places where oil production facilities actually touch the ground. It excludes gravel mines, roads, and pipelines (except their posts). By this math, the footprint of your office desk is only the four square inches where its legs touch the ground.

Noise and pollution of everyday oil mining operations will undoubtedly disrupt wildlife in the Refuge, which is one of America's last great wild places. The Porcupine Caribou herd, for example, travels to the coastal plains of the Refuge every year to give birth to their calves. This is one of the world's last transboundary land migrations - a spectacle of this magnitude can also be seen only in Africa's Serengeti. The Porcupine Caribou herd birthing area marks the very spot of proposed drilling.

We believe that Americans care about the environment, human rights and the very things and places that make our country unique. We hope that Americans will continue to take an hour out of their busy schedules to watch this film and decide for themselves if opening our nation's treasured wild places to oil drilling is the best way to address our energy needs.

The Oil on Ice DVD in eco-friendly packaging is available at and includes a Grassroots Action Toolkit to enable concerned citizens to take action. The DVD will be available in stores nationwide in August.


Kelpie Wilson is the t r u t h o u t environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she writes from her solar-powered cabin in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon. Her first novel, Primal Tears, is forthcoming from North Atlantic Books in Fall 2005.

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