The Review/Feature/

Landscapes of Resistance: Jeff Reichert & Farihah Zaman

"In this day and age, does aggressively staying small represent an act of resistance?"

by Jeff Reichert Farihah Zaman
Apr 10, 2017

Taking inspiration from the concept of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, in this series of visual essays we have asked filmmakers and artists to contribute their own “landscapes of resistance”: an image, or a series of images (still or moving; interior or exterior; from one of their films, somebody else’s film, life, or elsewhere), that represents for them a site of resistance — to power, authority, injustice, forgetting, or any other force that works to constrain or control.

The light in Texas has a mercurial beauty all its own. As the sun rises, it shoots through the evaporating dew and softly diffuses. The day builds in intensity and hits hot in the afternoon, but as it dips into twilight, the rays settle around the vast landscapes and create peach-tinged halos around faces, trees, and dusty red rocks. This is the expansive, open landscape that drew Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas) and Chantal Akerman (South), that continually fascinates Terrence Malick. The light is part of how Malick turns something as simple as falling into a haystack or rinsing play-dirtied feet off with a hose in the backyard into something iconic.

These are images of rural Texas, in and around one of the original oil-boom towns of the early 1900s that is now trying to negotiate a new future for itself as the oil slowly begins to run dry. The town and surrounding landscape is studded with sucker-rod pumps, a constant reminder of their history, sometimes in places so unlikely it feels more like a treasure hunt than the residue of industry. Driving along one of the major highways, the pumps and their more elegant cousins, the slick steel oil derrick, speckle the fields, but they also make their presence known all over town: in the back corner of the drive-thru of the local Dairy Queen, or see-sawing gently next to the train tracks; on the periphery of a small farmers’ market operating on the honour system; or nodding approvingly just outside of the decades-old smoke pit burning at Luling BBQ.

Having recently taken up residence in this town, we’ve noticed one in our neighbour’s backyard — a mesmerizing view from the kitchen window when doing dishes, that creates the faintly metallic smell of petroleum through our yard, and the next, and the next.

This town has chosen to “dress up” some of its pumps, reclaiming the structures they’ve been dependent on, humanizing their rusty frames, and providing a reminder that in so many towns sprung up around natural resources, what may begin as an economic concern becomes, over time, a more nuanced part of community identity. For example, watermelons are a frequent motif here: the town’s other claim to fame comes from its many watermelon growers and the festival held in their honour that has brought thousands of visitors for one weekend in June since the early 1950s.

Occasionally the two traditions are conflated; a mural in the town centre shows a young woman presiding over the rolling fields, with the body of a derrick, the crown of a queen, and the smile of a prototypical Tom Petty girl, carrying a watermelon in one arm and powerfully pumping oil out of the other, like the very, very specific patron saint of all who reside here. While they share much in common — always the light and often the oil — these little Texas towns each have their own distinctions and points of pride.

The symbolic quality of these pumps will vary depending on who you ask. Are they merely the remnants of man’s cruelly imposed oil economy hanging on until it has bled the earth of every last drop? Or are they a crucial part of Texas history — and the history of the era of fossil-fuel dependency for all humanity — and as essential to the geography of small towns across the state as skyscrapers are to city skylines in New York, London, or Shanghai?

The town holds onto its last remaining oil. It continues its traditions, including its watermelon festival. It keeps things small, turning away massive chain stores, pushing clean new hotels to its outskirts. In this day and age, does aggressively staying small represent an act of resistance? How do we negotiate our complicated histories as we turn, sometimes by choice, sometimes by circumstance, towards the light?

Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman are the directors of the feature documentaries Remote Area Medical and This Time Next Year. Jeff is also the director of the feature documentary Gerrymandering and the co-founder and co-editor of the online publication Reverse Shot, where Farihah is a regular contributor.