The Oil Machine – Sheffield DocFest 2022

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Director: Emma Davie

There are plenty of climate documentaries predicting the end of days but Emma Davie’s The Oil Machine showing at Sheffield DocFest examines the evidence from the perspective of the capture, refinement and repurposing of oil. Putting the growth of the fossil fuel industry in its historical as well as an environmental and activist context, this 80-minute documentary yields new insights.

Perhaps its most revelatory discovery is the extent to which the UK is financially reliant on North Sea oil to secure its future. The proximity of big business leaders to government and its strong lobbying position is no surprising, but the stock market position might be, with pension fund investment dependent on the continued buoyancy of fossil fuels – our future rests on a future no one wants contributor Steve Waygood from Aviva Investors succinctly states.

Interesting too is the relative rate of change with Davie calling on the former Chief Scientific Officer Sir David King and academics to note the thousands of years of history without the use of oil and gas. They claim even after the industrial revolution, it wasn’t until the 1970s when off shore drilling began in earnest in the North Sea, signalling a major shift and Davie makes a strong case for the last 200 years as a blip in wider human history, a phase – like the use of whale oil that preceded it – that could be ended if we chose to.

There is some balance in The Oil Machine, particularly in the first 50 minutes that examines the process of oil production and the industry that has grown around it. The cost of dismantling it, the documentary implies, is jobs with whole regions devoted to procurement, transport and sale of oil within the UK – what becomes of them is a question Davie hardly dares to ask but with plenty of industries from ship building to mining ravaging communities when thy were shut down, it is worthy of inclusion.

But this is predominantly an activist film and while representatives from the oil industry get to make their case, their claims are countered by academics, campaigners and experts on renewable energy. In facts, this a film that almost certainly will be preaching to the choir, anyone watching it already knows that a fossil fuel future in inconceivable if the planet is to avoid catastrophic and irreversible harm in the next 30 years.

With oil and gas so deeply embedded in every aspect of our lives, from the keyboards we use to the financial security of out old age, how do we even begin to dismantle it? That is a worry The Oil Machine tacitly poses but cannot even begin to answer.

The Oil Machine is screening at the Sheffield DocFest from 23-28 June 2022.

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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