Emma Davie, director of The Oil Machine and lecturer at the University of Edinburgh’s College of Art, shares her thoughts on the power and responsibility of documentary filmmaking in tackling the climate crisis.

An oil rig

How did The Oil Machine come about?

The first seed of inspiration for the film came from a book by James Marriott, Crude Britannia. While a direct adaptation wasn’t possible, the idea stayed with me. I have always been interested in making films that look at the big issues we’re facing. The film that would become The Oil Machine started as a one-hour documentary for the BBC. When we saw the dialogue it created, we knew we wanted to reach even more people and that a feature film would help us do it.

We’re hoping to make that impact by launching a major campaign in the autumn, releasing across theatres, taking part in film festivals and connecting with schools, colleges and universities – where important conversations are happening.

Why do you think those conversations are so crucial?

“Not doing anything isn’t an option anymore.”

We should be using our media to highlight the things that are really happening in the world, the problems we’re facing. A year ago, we were hosting COP, these vital conversations were happening in our own backyard, and there was very little discussion around it.

We’re not really engaging enough with the crisis, not asking enough questions about who makes the decisions around oil, and how some of those choices could be democratically decided. We wanted to bridge the distance between the real things that are happening around us and how embedded oil is in an invisible world. We know very little of that world, and that’s one thing the film hopes to change.

What should we be doing?

A university should be a space where we can ask questions and move those questions forward. This emergency is so immense that no matter what our jobs are, whether we’re academics or coming from a different angle, we all have a responsibility. The Edinburgh Earth Initiative is creating links within the University but also with people and businesses outside it, and it’s that sort of interconnectedness and dialogue that we all need to be having.

How can films help?

“I saw the film as a kind of opera, looking at things people already know but bringing it together into one space and letting us begin to see what we’re really living through.”

For me, filmmaking is about finding stories and ways of articulating complex and huge issues in a way that doesn’t alienate or overwhelm the audience. I want to help the people who are involved in this emergency to be engaged in finding a solution – and to feel like a solution is possible. The Oil Machine brings together polarised viewpoints. We interviewed all sorts of people, from economists to activists, and invited them to share the same space.

We spoke to people in the oil industry too, and I think it’s essential to hear their perspectives and to avoid demonising individuals. The fossil fuel industry needs to be engaged in the dialogue, after all. To be able to draw together these people in pursuit of answers to common questions is fantastic. Especially as it was very difficult to get work made about environmental issues for a long time. Now we have the opportunity to share these stories and channel them into change.

Did you learn anything else about the oil industry you didn’t know beforehand?

I hadn’t realised how much was owned by people and by countries outside of the UK. The whole structure is ordered by people we don’t have democratic control over and that has huge implications. We need to know what is

happening and why, ignorance isn’t an option in a world that’s changing as fast as ours is. We have to rise up and demand answers from politicians, but also make decisions ourselves in terms of our own finances.

Having some kind of agency within oil companies is a huge thing too. If we’re informed and have a conduit to conversation, we can make demands of them and the companies, as well as investing in new types of energy.

Professor Kevin Anderson, who contributed to the film and who worked in the oil industry, gave me a new perspective: that building the oil fields in the North Sea in the first place was a feat that required pizzaz, skill, imagination and engineering ability. Now we can use that same spirit of invention to find new solutions.