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‘Where do you draw the line?’: Q&A with director of documentary about Amazonian community fighting oil extraction

  • The documentary was filmed in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and in the community of Sani Isla, which lies deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon on the banks of the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon River.
  • Sani Isla is located between the borders of Yasuní National Park and the Cuyabeno Natural Reserve, a region that biologists have called one of the most biodiverse places on Earth.
  • The community is home to hundreds of indigenous Kichwa villagers who have fought the Ecuadorian military and one of the largest oil companies in South America for years in a bid to protect their ancestral lands and traditional way of life.

The documentary film Where do you draw the line? was released for free online on December 1. It tells the story of an indigenous community in the Amazon rainforest fighting enforced oil extraction.

The documentary was filmed in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and in the community of Sani Isla, which lies deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon on the banks of the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon River.

Sani Isla is located between the borders of Yasuní National Park and the Cuyabeno Natural Reserve, a region that biologists have called one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. The community is home to hundreds of indigenous Kichwa villagers who have fought the Ecuadorian military and one of the largest oil companies in South America for years in a bid to protect their ancestral lands and traditional way of life.

“At first glance it might appear that the community is just another victim of big oil’s need to feed ‘our’ collective habit,” according to a statement that accompanied the film’s release. “But a more complex story emerges: China taking over the role of the IMF and World Bank funding overseas development in return for oil; well-meaning but under-resourced and ultimately failing local government and worldwide initiatives; the international community turning a blind eye; blatant denial of indigenous rights; as well as the desires of the community themselves, to develop in line with modern expectations.”


Produced by three recent university graduates who grew up together in Bristol, England, Where do you draw the line? features members of the Sani Isla community, including Patricio Jipa, a Kichwa shaman and Sani Isla community leader, as well as numerous academics, researchers, and conservationists. The film also features narration and original music by Grant “Daddy G” Marshall of seminal English trip hop group Massive Attack.

Mongabay spoke with director Joseph Wordsworth about how the film came to be in the first place, why he and his colleagues felt this was a story they had to tell, and how his crew captured the first-ever footage of an oil production platform guarded by the Ecuadorian military that camera crews have tried to film in the past without success.

You can watch the trailer for Where do you draw the line? below, as well as a clip from the film in which Jipa, Kevin Koenig of the NGO Amazon Watch, and Bianca Tapuiy, a healer and organizer of the Sani Isla Women’s Project, explain the impacts of oil extraction on local Amazonian communities. You can view several more clips as well as the entire film here.



Mongabay: Can you tell me a bit about the impetus for the film — how and when was the initial idea conceived, and by whom? What was the story you set out to tell?

Joseph Wordsworth: I happened upon this article in The Guardian newspaper and had just graduated from an environmental science degree so I contacted Patricio [Jipa, a Sani Isla community leader and Kichwa shaman] and wrote something along the lines of, “I’ve seen so many cases like this over the course of my studies, have you considered making a documentary film to raise awareness, solidarity from the UK, good luck, hope you succeed,” and didn’t think anything of it.

Imagine my surprise when some weeks later I got a reply saying, “It gives us great strength to have your support from so far away, why don’t you come and make the film?”

I showed two friends who had also just graduated (producers Cora Fern, who studied Latin American studies and was concerned with indigenous rights, and Mike Smith, who studied environmental science and was motivated by conservation). I managed to convince them it was an amazing opportunity and that in life when some opportunities present themselves they should be grabbed with both hands.

They were reluctant at first, as we weren’t documentary filmmakers, but the more we researched the more the idea appealed. I convinced them that, “We have the basic equipment, how hard can making a documentary film be?” We tried to approach it like an essay. We’d investigate all sides, consider the complexities, and then present it so that the viewer can make up their own mind.

We didn’t have a “story” per se, beyond wanting to go out there and give the community members the chance to tell their own stories in their own words. We were confident a narrative or story would present itself. Most films on this topic have a slightly biased view with their own slant on the issue; we really tried to avoid that and wanted to let the facts speak for themselves. We really wanted to avoid a Western-centric point of view in terms of judging those within Ecuador and didn’t want to be featured in the film ourselves at all.

Mongabay: Who was behind the film itself? And how did Daddy G get involved?

Joseph Wordsworth: It was just the three of us — myself, Cora, and Mike — behind the film. We were a three-person band that did everything, we’d spend days in Quito emailing people for interviews, then we’d research them, type up the questions, conduct the interviews ourselves (one of us would ask the questions depending upon our suitability to the subject, one would film and keep an eye on the battery, camera angles, etc., and the third would record the sound).

We went out there on a tiny budget, with our own personal digital cameras and equipment. The most expensive camera we had was around $300. Ultimately, we just wanted to give a voice to the people in the rainforest who were largely ignored by the world’s media. Being self-funded, we didn’t have any editorial constraints or have to “toe the party line” and were able to really get to grips with a complex story and go into more detail than many films on a similar subject are able to do.

We returned back to Bristol with a huge amount of footage, convinced that we had enough content to make an interesting story that did justice to the people we met and had interviewed.

Once we had made a rough cut of the film, it became we clear we needed a narrator to tie all the chapters together. I was speaking to a friend who knew Grant (Daddy G) and suggested I ask him if he might be interested. So we went round and knocked on his door! He was extremely busy at the time, touring and working on a new album, but said he would watch the film and get back to me. After about nine months and some gentle persuasion he watched the film and recognised it was an important issue and that it was a story that needed to be told. He wasn’t sure at all that he was suitable or that he would do a good job, but we recorded a rough voice-over script and I was certain that the depth of his voice combined with his laid-back, easy-going style made it perfect for our documentary. I could totally understand his objections, as listening to recordings of our voice we all dislike them.

Thankfully I played it to his wife and she liked it too, so from then on he was convinced. He went well out of his way to help (we ended up recording the voice-over four times over the space of a year, as he is that much of a perfectionist!). By this point he was committed and really enthusiastic about the project and it became more of a collaboration. Daddy G began suggesting edits, parts to improve in the narrative, and even ended up writing the music that features in the film with his extremely talented writing partner, Stew Jackson of Robot Club. We are all extremely grateful to them both for their encouragement and involvement in the film.

Mongabay: Can you tell us a bit about the process of actually shooting the film? Where did you shoot and when? What kinds of footage and interviews are featured in the film in order to tell the story you’re telling?

Joseph Wordsworth: We shot the film in Ecuador in the summer of 2013. We spent five weeks in Ecuador: three weeks in the rainforest and two weeks in Quito.

In Quito we were planning and researching, interviewing academics at local universities and government ministers. They provide the insight and analysis and really back up the argument of the community members. We have academics who explain the government’s push for oil in order to fund development. Leading researchers who demonstrate the unique species and rich biodiversity existing within the region. Community members explaining their long history in the area, and their plans for a sustainable future based on eco-tourism for future generations, as well as the lengths they will go to in order to protect their community. A government minister who was part of a now-cancelled initiative which could have saved the region entirely.

Bookending the film, binding it all together and a constant throughout, is Patricio ‘Kurikindi’ Jipa, the village shaman and community leader, an incredibly wise, knowledgeable man who was the real ‘star’ of the film.

We tried to interview people who might be in favour of extracting oil in the Amazon, but nobody was willing to speak on camera. The state oil companies didn’t reply to emails or calls, and we found no academics or locals who were happy to do so either.

In terms of in the rainforest, it’s so stunningly beautiful that it almost shoots itself. The sunsets, the rain in the canopy, the lagoons and rivers, not to mention the wildlife are so vivid in their beauty that filming and shooting it was relatively easy. Although, it was a steep learning curve: we had to find ways to keep equipment dry and away from moisture (very hard in the rainforest!), we had to learn about the rule of thirds, and we had to learn how to frame a shot properly, etc.

The three-person team behind the film: producer Mike Smith (left), producer Cora Fern (center), and director Joseph Wordsworth (right). Photo courtesy of Joseph Wordsworth.

Mongabay: You got footage of an oil platform guarded by military personnel. Where was it, and how did you manage to film it? Why is the Ecuadorian government trying to keep the operation under wraps?

Joseph Wordsworth: This was filmed at a community approximately twenty kilometres down-river from Sani Isla (the community featured in the film). I can’t really say too much detail about how we got onto the land, as there would be repercussions for others (I would like to stress that we did nothing illegal), but it was heavily guarded by the military. Full field clothing, automatic machineguns, patrolling the site in military vehicles, etc., etc.

The oil platforms cover a huge area and there are many roads linking them. We spent the day walking between them and had to hide in the forest beside the road when the military, private security, or oil workers passed us on their patrols.

Nobody from Sani Isla came with us, they were all too afraid. We were under no illusions and it was explained to us that should we be caught we’d be questioned, they would have seized/destroyed our equipment and escorted us off the land — I don’t believe that we would have been harmed physically, as, being Westerners, that would create a diplomatic incident. But you never know.

Thankfully that didn’t happen.

The Ecuadorian government and the oil companies are keeping it under wraps as this oil field is in one of the most bio-diverse regions on earth and, within Ecuador, there is huge opposition to this kind of oil extraction. With limited time there, we weren’t able to actually film as much as we wanted, but scientists and those that know more than we do suspect that the government and oil companies lie about the number and width of the roads and how many oil platforms exist, as well as deny there is any pollution.

For all of these reasons, they don’t wish to draw attention to their operations there.

Mongabay: Are there other examples of footage featured in the film that were difficult or even dangerous to get?

Joseph Wordsworth: Other than being in the rainforest itself and the dangers associated with the potentially poisonous flora/fauna there? Ha ha, but that’s par for the course, we were aware of those before we went. I suppose the act of going to the rainforest itself and making a film about such a controversial topic could be considered dangerous. Especially when passing through the nearest large town, Coca, which has a Wild West frontier town feel. Everybody told us to be careful there… Everybody knows of the increased threats to environment protectors from illegal loggers, oil companies, or dam operators. It’s a worryingly increasing trend in South America and indeed the world over.

The dangers for the people in the film who speak out against oil extraction, and want to preserve their land and actively oppose the oil lobby, government, etc. are far greater than the threats to us. So hats off to those guys, in comparison we faced relatively little danger, and the danger we did face (filming in Eden, at the oil field) was self-imposed.

Overall Ecuador and its people were most welcoming and accommodating, I’d advise anybody to go and visit! Having said that, Cora and I were robbed in Quito by three machete-wielding street robbers, but that was on the last day and we weren’t filming, we were doing touristy stuff (we actually lost a camera and hard drive and a few other bits too, gifts for family, etc.) but that could happen in London, New York, or Lagos, so…

Mongabay: Why, ultimately, did you feel this was a story that needed to be told, even if it meant putting yourselves at risk?

Joseph Wordsworth: I think the risks were relative to the overall message and context of the film. It’s such an important issue for future generations, and us, that the message and voice of those living in the Amazon needs to be heard. If established, traditional media organisations fail to do that (for whatever reason) then it falls to people like us to do so. And it was an issue we were all passionate about enough to go and do exactly that.

Mongabay: What are your distribution plans, and what impact do you hope the film will have?

Joseph Wordsworth: We are putting the film online for free at as an educational resource.

I would have liked to enter it for film festivals etc. but they all (or the majority) have quite high entry fees, even the “green, environmental” film festivals, which seems ludicrous! Is nothing safe from commodification and commercialization anymore? I guess that’s why we went self-funded, to get away from that side of the media industry.

Ultimately, we hope that people will watch the film, share it with friends (being self funded we are reliant on this to get the word out there), and begin to think about how our own actions affect those in the Amazon. Ideally we hope people watch the film with friends, have a stimulating debate and a chat and then pass it on. If this results in people putting pressure on China, Ecuador, and on their own governments to stop Amazon oil extraction, then that can only be a good thing. And if people watch it and resolve to consume less cheap, single-use plastic produce then that’s a good start too.

At the very least, people who have watched the film will be conscious and aware of our collective impacts. As Patricio says in the film, watch the film, listen to the arguments, and make up your mind. They speak for themselves, they’re pretty persuasive.

Children of the Sani Isla community. Photo courtesy of Joseph Wordsworth.
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