An Early Requiem for Oil

Sydney Bowie Linden, a filmmaker born and raised in California, first got the idea for her documentary short “Black Gold” after reading a story in the L.A. Times about the small town of Taft. In the general political blue of California, the town is an island of “Trump country.” In 2020, while she was in film school at Stanford, Bowie Linden started visiting Taft, which is situated in an active oil field at the edge of the San Joaquin Valley. She wound up shooting there over a span of six months, a period that encompassed the 2020 Presidential campaign and election.

Under normal circumstances, she would have worked on the film with another member of her film-school cohort, but because of pandemic restrictions she worked alone. That dynamic shift had an unexpected advantage, Bowie Linden told me, via e-mail. She found that “shooting alone made it much more natural for me to sort of blend into the Clark family’s environment.” The family, and especially its patriarch, Les Clark, Jr., are at the center of the documentary. Bowie Linden recalled that, when she first met Clark, they were sitting on the patio of a restaurant on Taft’s main drag, and it seemed like every single passerby stopped to chat with him.

Clark is a Trump supporter who works in the oil industry, and in the film we see him express his anxieties about how a Biden Presidency would affect his business. “Save the whales,” he seems to shout, in a light moment, with an exaggerated drawl. Then he shifts his pronunciation: “Save the wells. W-E-L-L-S!” On the phone, his son, Les Clark III, cracks a joke: “You know, if Biden gets elected, no more surfing. The plastic’s made out of oil. They said get rid of all oil. So no more surfboards.” He’s cracking wise, but the sense of alienation he’s expressing is real. And so is his subtler point, about how deeply fossil fuels and petroleum products are baked into our daily lives, often in unseen ways.

The filming took place in a moment of high political tension, and the urgent drone of TV-news pundits speckles the film throughout. But, Bowie Linden told me, her aim was to make an observational film, not a political one. “That was my intention, to take an issue that had become as divisive and politicized as the fossil fuel industry and start to peel back the layers,” she wrote. “The film is not about whether oil is good or bad.” Rather, it is a portrait of someone seeing an unwelcome transition on the horizon, and trying to figure out how to defend against it. For Les Clark, Jr., there’s no question about whether oil is good or bad. Having coffee with a friend who’s also in the business, he puts it simply: “The oil industry’s been good to you and me.”

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