Writing for Guernica magazine, Rebecca Bates talks to volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer about exploring pyrotechnics and his latest journeys with Werner Herzog while filming Into the Inferno:
Guernica: First, how did you and Herzog choose the locations for the film?
Clive Oppenheimer: We wouldn’t have gone to North Korea, except for the fact that I had been working there for several years. Because we wanted some pyrotechnics, we filmed at Yasur Volcano on Tanna Island, which has very spectacular explosions.
Also, we wanted a deep time perspective. Why, even if we don’t live on a volcano, can we watch imagery of a lava lake and just find it so awesome and just get sucked in like a moth to the flame? I think, in some ways, it’s because we have an echo of the experiences that we acquired as a species in the Rift Valley one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand years ago. Growing up in the shadow of huge volcanoes. Using their resources, obsidian lava, to make our precision tools. Using lava flows as physical barriers to corral prey. Then, from time to time, fleeing from eruptions.
Then, we wanted to have to have a look at contemporary risk. You can’t just walk up in somebody’s village and say, “Okay, our seismometers tell us you need to leave now.” You need to have already talked to them about what could happen, understand aspects of their livelihoods or belief systems. That’s partly why we look at their cosmologies, their oral traditions.
Guernica: When you speak with Chief Mael Moses of Endu Village on Ambrym about the experience of looking into the lava lake there, he replies, “I thought I was looking at the seawater, but it was red. And I didn’t understand. I started to think about why is there water there. And I didn’t understand. I thought, this fire is something that comes from the seawater, so I was very frightened.” Can you talk a little bit about how you saw some of these communities finding ways to describe the experience of living near a volcano, people who don’t have access to the same scientific language that you do?
Clive Oppenheimer: That was really so sincere, you couldn’t not believe how he explained things, even if it was not a scientific description. I remember particularly where he says at the end of the film that he goes up and he looks in at the liquid, the molten magma churning away and crashing against the sides like the waves in the sea, and he says, “It looks like water, but it can’t be water, because it’s red. So, what is it?”
If you’ve got a geoscience degree, you’ll say, “Okay, well, it’s silicate magma and it’s got some crystals and some bubbles in it, the polymerized silicate melted between.” If you don’t, then you’ve got to find an alternative way. There’s no power in these villages. You can’t really ignore the fact that there’s a fiery glow coming from the crater outside of the village every night. It would be very strange if there weren’t belief systems, cosmologies that have come up with an explanation of how volcanoes work.
Guernica: When you’re speaking to Chief Moses about the spirits he believes reside in the volcano, you ask, “The molten rock, is that part of the spirit?” It’s like you accept, for that conversation, that that’s a truth, if not a fact.
Clive Oppenheimer: Nothing was choreographed; there were no storyboards. We just took what came at us. We had a lot of serendipity in the places we went and what was going on at the time, meeting the chief and other wonderful interviewees. I’m not an anthropologist—I really just asked what I thought was interesting, what I wanted to know, what made me curious.
Guernica: At one point in the film you ask Chief Moses whether he wonders why anyone would come to Ambrym to study the volcano.
Clive Oppenheimer: And he’s giggling away.
Guernica: Yes. How do you generally couch what you do to someone who is especially far removed from the scientific community?
Clive Oppenheimer: We didn’t talk about it, but I imagined, after the camera stopped rolling, that we then had a discussion—the two of us exchanging our interpretations of volcanic activity, me trying to convince him why it was interesting to go and study it.
I’d probably go back to basics of our understanding of the earth. Why is there molten rock inside of the earth? It’s been around for 4.5 billion years, shouldn’t it have cooled down by now? Okay, where is the heat coming from, that clearly being one of these key ingredients in making this stuff liquid?