The genesis of David Luis Leal Cortez’ most recent film, “Drilling Mora County,” and his journey as a filmmaker began where he said he made his first super-8 short films at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s.
Eventually, he transferred to the College of Santa Fe’s moving image arts program to study with Gene Youngblood and graduated in 2001. “I worked on a few feature films,” he said, “but did not like the environment or the films I was participating in. I took a massive hiatus and started shooting and editing short reports, or covered a protest, about three years ago and uploading to my Vimeo page.”
His latest is titled “Drilling Mora County.” It will be screened today (Feb. 8) at 7 p.m., in the Arthur Bell Auditorium at the Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux Street. Admission is $15, $12 for museum members.
“Drilling Mora County” is a documentary that explores the Mora County fracking ban. It was the first county in the United States that attempted to ban fracking within its borders. In the film, Cortez interviews attorneys, activists and elected officials involved with the ordinance. His collection of interviews, recorded over a four-year period, include Attorney Jeffery Haas, elected official John Olivas, and activists Kathleen Dudley and Anita Laran.
Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing,” is a process that uses water and chemicals injected into the ground to extract oil and gas. “I did my best to elucidate the public about what happened around the fracking ban,” he said. “It indeed leans to the left by the end. I also wanted to help explain what happened. Some people still think they actually banned fracking, not knowing they were sued in federal court.”
He said people who come to see the film should expect “a sort of mash-up using interstitials from the ‘Milagro Beanfield War’ to help evoke a sense of New Mexico.”
He added, “there is footage from over five years ago. I received a grant from the Max and Anna Levinson Foundation to complete post-production and shoot a few more interviews and landscapes.” The other funding partner for the project is the Mora County Economic Development Corp. Cortez said other “potential partners” included The Healy Foundation and a generosity campaign.
The use of fracking in the United States is an environmental concern because of the transport of large volumes of water necessary for the operation. Also, environmentalists claim the chemicals used in the process are potentially carcinogenic and could contaminate groundwater.
Mora County voters elected John Olivas and Paula Garcia in 2010 to the Mora County Commission largely because of their stance on oil and gas extraction in the county. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit that provides a legal framework for municipalities to support local self-governance, teamed up with Drilling Mora County, a local non-profit, anti-fracking organization.
In April 2013, the Mora County Commission passed “The Mora County Community Water Rights and Local Self-Government Ordinance.” This ordinance included the first countywide ban on oil and gas extraction in the United States.
In a recent interview with the Albuquerque Journal, Cortez alluded to a lack of national attention around the matter and its litigation. He wanted to educate viewers on the history of the case, explain the ordinance in a non-partisan way as best he could and explain the legal process: how and why Mora was sued and how the officials knew they would be sued.
In the interview, Cortez described Mora as being at the forefront of a community rights movement. He compared the ban to Mora County’s recent decision to sue pharmaceutical companies over their role in the nationwide opioid crisis, something the New Mexico Attorney General’s office did shortly afterward. “It’s weird; it’s like a county with 5,000 people. They don’t even have a movie theater. They’re this small village, and yet they’re hip to what’s going on,” Cortez said.
In the interview, he also added that he attempted to depict the viewpoints of those who opposed the ban, including current Commission Chair Paula Garcia, but her office did not agree to be involved in the project. As an alternative, he used clips from news organizations, such as PBS and Al- Jazeera to attempt to show all sides.
Then, to break up the interviews and channel the narrative, he also included parts of Robert Redford’s 1988 movie, “The Milagro Beanfield War,” about rural residents of northern New Mexico fighting big business and politicians for water rights. The Albuquerque Journal interview continued with Cortez referring to the movie based on a novel of the same name by Taos resident John Nichols, saying, “It had all the New Mexican characteristics and qualities that we couldn’t re-enact … which is corporations and the little guy.”
The court struck down Mora County’s ban in 2015, permitting fracking.
Cortez describes himself as a writer, filmmaker and former political operative, who has worked on local, state and national campaigns. He is from the Washington, D.C., area and graduated from the College of Santa Fe. He has worked with the art collectives, American Dust and Meow Wolf.
Cortez is continuing to work on usage permissions and a distribution plan for his movie. His next feature, “Successful Outlaw,” is a documentary about the biker, builder and master silversmith, Pepe Rochón, as he builds an off-grid adobe, 4,000-square-foot, Sonora-style hacienda.