Herzog's Lessons of Darkness
January 2, 2007 9:11 AM   Subscribe

In Werner Herzog's Lessons of Darkness there are a few images toward the end of oilfield workers igniting uncapped oil wells. Presuming these are the same workers who had been working to put out the oil field fires (and I think they are), why are they igniting those wells?

The footage is of a piece with the other Herzog-shot footage, so I think that it isn't archival footage of Iraqis first igniting the wells, although I could be wrong about that. What would be the use or need for igniting those wells?

Also, if you've seen the movie, do the two Kuwaiti interviews seem credible? If you think they're factual (as opposed to true), what makes you think so?
posted by OmieWise to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't seen the movie, but one way to put out a well fire is to detonate an expolsive charge at the wellhead.
posted by cardboard at 9:22 AM on January 2, 2007

I remember reading in a Harper's piece a month or two ago that much of the footage Herzog shot was unauthorized. Or, at least, he obtained much of it by telling people he was shooting a different movie than the one he ended up making.

Here's a citation for it: Bissell, Tom. "The Secret Mainstream: Contemplating the mirages of Werner Herzog". Harper's. December 2006.

I've been having a huge amount of problems with the Harper's website lately so I'm not sure if it's available online. But most libraries should have it. I realize this doesn't answer your question,. but it should provide some context as to the validity of the footage.
posted by GilloD at 9:50 AM on January 2, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, I've seen the Harper's article, unfortunately it does not address either of these questions.

Also, this was not a detonation to put out a fire. I know about those (Wages of Fear, anyone?), and there is footage of such an explosion in the movie. This is at least two shots of someone with a torch tossing it into a geyser of oil and the oil subsequently igniting.
posted by OmieWise at 10:02 AM on January 2, 2007

Maybe it's a simple as Werner Herzog is crazy and that shot (I remember it pretty vividly) is unbelievably beautiful?

That would still be effed up, I'm just saying he's sort of a madman and the country was in chaos. This is a man who had a ship dragged over a mountain for the sake of a movie, after all.

And yes, the Kuwaiti interviews seemed credible to me both times I watched it. But again, it's a Herzog "documentary" and you can't really trust anything anyone says in a Herzog "documentary" as being empirically factual.
posted by nathancaswell at 1:59 PM on January 2, 2007

I just checked my copy and that shot is in the chapter entitled "Leben ohne Feuer", which means "Life without fire"... I say staged with bored firemen for the sake of art.

Here are some pictures of the scene in question.
posted by nathancaswell at 2:11 PM on January 2, 2007

Training purposes, perhaps? Maybe they ignited them for practice in putting them out again?
posted by Rubber Soul at 2:25 PM on January 2, 2007

Here's a guess: the contract for that crew specified one rate to cap the well if it was burning, and another (lower) rate if it wasn't. It's sadly not unheard of for wildland firefighters to set fires or hire arsonists to make extra money during a season; this might be something similar.

Note that this is pure speculation, and I wouldn't want to unjustly impinge upon the reputation of people or a company I know absolutely nothing about; it just occurred to me as a possibility.
posted by hackwolf at 3:40 PM on January 2, 2007

Maybe they thought it was better to burn off the oil than leave it to seem out and pollute the ground/groundwater/rivers? Or could the wells have been venting gas as well, so it would be better to burn it than wait for the inevitable explosion?
posted by Boobus Tuber at 12:26 PM on February 11, 2007

I haven't yet seen the film, but I just came across this now....

For a probable answer, see Voluntary Ignition, part of a page on blowout control from the John Wright Co. This was probably done to prevent "unexpected vapor cloud ignition", and incongruously, "Blowout work is safer on burning wells."

The oil is under pressure and until there is a proper valve and some kind of pressure control in place, it's going to keep coming out. They probably can't build a well rig if there's any danger of unexpected ignition. Basically it seems that they have replaced an uncontrolled fire with a controlled fire. This will allow capping and rig construction to take place safely.

There is also a routine practice of burning off natural gas that uneconomically "contaminates" oil wells.

It's worth considering that deliberate ignition of a Kansas "gusher" was involved in the discovery of helium. We've been burning off oil from oil wells as long as we've had them.
posted by dhartung at 10:44 AM on December 3, 2007

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