pump(JLH: 3/5)

Pump is a new documentary in the same family tree as Fed Up, the recent film produced and narrated by Katie Couric that I wrote about a couple weeks ago. The stories these documentaries tell are compelling and forceful, aiming to get citizenry engaged in important problems and encouraging them to do something about it. The trouble comes when they make this story so ominous and threatening that instead of feeling energized by the documentary, you just want to pull the covers over your head and give up because the battles and forces against us are so huge. The time to do anything about any of this is so short that instead of feeling energized, you just want to give up.

Pump, as the name implies, provides background and history about oil, what we get at the gas stations, and on how United States oil companies have so much control over our lives. It shows our dependence on oil, from running our cars to power sources, is a situation clearly out of control.

Filmmakers Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell tell the story mostly centered in the United States, but also makes some forays into China and Brazil to show how heavily dependent our entire economy is on oil. Energy for combustion engines is at a destabilization point and from this point forward we’re going to have an incredible amount of competition from China. As the Chinese economy grows, the desire for more cars is exponentially increasing. Therefore, more people in China need gasoline for their cars, leaving less for the United States, a diminishing resource that will result in increased oil prices.

The story is told in a weird way, with the filmmakers throwing in the fact that because of the one child policy, there’s now a substantial statistical imbalance between the numbers of women of marriageable age and men of marriageable age. One of the things that women are looking for is a husband that can come with a car – so if a prospective bridegroom can’t promise his bride a car, then she’s going to turn him down and marry someone who will. It’s an interesting factoid, but distracting from the overall flow of the film. The point they were trying to make is that we’ve had our way as the big, powerful United States, having access to whatever oil there is on the planet. It’s been fairly under our own control and under our own terms as long as we’re accommodating ourselves to monarchial dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and putting boots on the ground in Iraq to protect the oil. The ability of the United States to do that, however, is ending because of the increasing competitive pressure from China.

On the other hand, they talk about Brazil as a place where the decision was made a couple of decades ago that their economy would not thrive under the pressure for oil. Instead, they went outside the OPEC and developed fuel with ethanol. Much of Brazil’s economic success is built on energy that comes from ethanol. The filmmakers of Pump set this up as a counterexample of things we could do to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. The United States refused to use this method because of their dominant control over our choices at the gas stations. A future scenario is set up where you could go into a gas station and there would be four or five different kinds of fuel, not just gasoline, and you would have your choice of what to put in your car and the multiple kinds of fuel your car would be able to accommodate. This option is already possible, but nobody knows about it because the oil companies have such a tight grip (clearly, the villain is the oil company). They also talk about fracking and the availability of natural gas, an idea that terrifies me; I cannot believe it is a good thing for the planet if we’re pumping all this stuff under the ground to force out all this natural gas. They paint the scenario as very grim.

The well-intentioned documentary told too many stories in the course of 90 minutes with an ominous soundtrack and narration, running up against doomsday. Not that I think that it’s wrong, but the problem is that by the end of this movie you just want to pull the covers over your head and say, “What have we done to our planet?” There are very grim before-and-after shots of Detroit, showing the city when the American economy, cars, and use of oil was at a peak and now, as the embodiment of what our future will be because of the ungovernable addiction to oil and the enabling of the oil companies. On a depressing note, they tell you that you can make change: at the voting booth, the pump, in the car, and which American manufacturer you choose. You can vote for cars that have the ability to run on a multiple fuels and service stations with multiple forms of energy for your car. It’s a question of you getting yourself to the ballot box and voting and making your own personal determination: You’re going to recycle and you’re going to eat healthy and you’re going to make good choices at the pump, but I don’t know if that’s any kind of reality.


Review © Jan Lisa Huttner (9/25/14)

Q: Does Pump pass the Bechdel Test?

No, it does not pass the Bechdel Test. They really aren’t any conversations of women talking to women. The narrator is never present in any way – the person asking questions is not a first person narrator, but third person.

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