With Just $250 in His Pocket, A Filmmaker Takes on Big Oil

‘Dirty Energy,’ produced on a $250 budget, catalogues life in Cajun country post-Deepwater Horizon accident.

Oil collects in a marsh near Venice, Louisiana in the days after the 2010 BP oil spill. (Photo: Carrie Vonderhaar/National Geographic / Getty Images)

Feb 1, 2013· 3 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

In case this story, on the Deepwater Horizon haunting the Super Bowl, wasn’t enough of a reminder of the horrific environmental mess that still plagues NOLA, filmmaker Bryan Hopkins’ just-released Dirty Energy will have you crushing your big-game Doritos and beer cans in anger.

I stood up and started screaming at the television. I was mad and felt like I had to do something. So I did. Within a week I had packed my bags, kissed my wife and son goodbye and set out for Louisiana.

Like many storytellers who have visited Louisiana post-spill, California-based Hopkins—armed initially with just a video camera and $250—couch-surfed his way around Cajun country, taking note of the widespread ecological destruction in the process. He admits the film resulted out of “anger and helplessness” and now hopes it will make people across the country, and not just on Super Bowl Sunday, sit up and pay attention.

In November 2012, BP pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to the 2010 sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig, and subsequent oil spill. They agreed to pay $4.5 billion in fines and restitution. A major civil case by the government, in which BP could face up to $20 billion in fines under the Clean Water Act, is scheduled to begin February 25, 2013.

On the eve of the Super Bowl, TakePart caught up with Hopkins to discuss all things Gulf spill.

TakePart: How did you come to tell this story about the Deepwater Horizon accident and its aftermath?

Bryan Hopkins: The film was more a heartfelt reaction to what I was seeing in the media than a premeditated project. I was home watching CNN one evening during the spill and saw (Plaquemine Parish chief) Billy Nungesser discussing the spill with Anderson Cooper. Nungesser began to cry. He pleaded for the government to help his community. He was frustrated that so little had been done at that point. Hearing his cry for help had a powerful effect on me.

I stood up and started screaming at the television. I was mad and felt like I had to do something. So I did. Within a week I had packed my bags, kissed my wife and son goodbye and set out for Louisiana with $200 (nearly all my cash) and a bag of groceries that I bought with food stamps. I posted a request for trip donations on Facebook, and luckily a few friends were able to contribute. However, the biggest contribution to making this film came from the Gulf residents themselves. They opened their doors to me and were extremely generous.

What is the most indicting evidence you filmed that the accident continues to harm the environment?

Two main events took place after the BP well was capped that made me realize that Gulf residents are going to be dealing with this oil for very long time.

The first event took place roughly a year after the spill had begun. I went to Grand Isle to do some additional interviews. As I was about to cross the bridge onto the main island I noticed clean-up crews, so I stopped to do some filming. As I reached the water’s edge, I saw some dead fish and a pool of thick fresh oil. Keep in mind that it had been more than six months since the well had been capped. I was infuriated seeing this since, at this same time, BP was running national ads declaring the "Gulf was open for business." Doing this, despite clear evidence that the spill remained in the environment. In fact, I took a boat trip during this same time period and got out of the boat to stand on the marsh and do some filming. As I stood there, oil began oozing out of the ground beneath my feet. It was and is, obvious that BP ads were misleading the public on a large scale.

The second event that reinforced this misleading of the public was when fisherman Dean Blanchard caught some deformed shrimp from his dock in Grand Isle last November (2012), nearly three years after the spill. The shrimp had black discoloration in their gills, large tumors and deformities such as missing eyes and enlarged heads.

Fortunately, Riki Ott, PhD., a marine toxicologist, was with me in Louisiana at the time, and was able to explain how the oil and Corexit dispersant residue was mutating the shrimp. We taped this and it is a bonus feature on the DVD. What should alarm everyone is that there are no tests or sorting processes in place to keep these clearly damaged shrimp from our national food supply.

I think the untold story of the environmental mess, which you've told well, is the impact on human health. When do you think we'll really wake up to the impact the spill, and the clean-up, had on humans?

Sadly, we may never know the full extent of the spill damage or have concrete information that could lead to actionable policy changes. These toxins were dispersed into the environment on such a massive scale, and the medical research being conducted is so inadequate, that it’s terrifying. There are many questions that I fear will not be answered due to competing agendas. The only people who want to find the truth are the people who suffered the greatest loss and have the least amount of resources to get done what needs to be done.

BP, Federal and State Government agencies, and the seafood and tourism industry all want the situation to be over. Everyone seems fine with writing or receiving checks. It is fishermen like George Barisich who now must use an inhaler for COPD, despite never smoking or working in the oil industry, who are fighting for the real truth to come out in the open. Clearly, the disenfranchised are outnumbered and out-gunned.

Does anything give you hope that an accident like this won't happen again?

No, I see no hope unless we can get big business out of politics and we begin holding our politicians accountable. Citizens United must be overturned. We need a single-payer healthcare system in place that would marry the government budget to the health of its population. Until we address those two important issues, it is going to be extremely difficult to break the tie that binds corporations to D.C.