When Deepwater Horizon, the Transocean-owned, BP-operated oil drilling rig, exploded 50 miles off the Louisiana coast on April 20, 2010, killing 11 crew members before sinking into the Gulf of Mexico two days later, making a documentary about what would become the largest accidental oil spill in U.S. history was not on Margaret Brown’s radar.
The Manhattan-based filmmaker had just completed The Order of Myths, a lauded documentary about the separate but unequal Mardi Gras traditions in her hometown of Mobile, Ala., and wanted her next film to be a narrative feature. But in the days after the explosion—as terms such as riser pipe, relief well, and blowout preventer crept into dinner table conversations across America—Brown’s father began emailing her photographs of oil-slickened water near her parents’ Mobile Bay home.
“He shrimps off the pier. I have this vivid picture of my dad putting the weight in his mouth and throwing the net, and he was just so depressed that he would have to give up something he’s been doing his whole life,” she says. Brown quickly realized the fallout from the spill would affect “everyone’s dad and everyone’s family who lives down there; it really felt like this whole way of life was going to change.”
By mid-May she was back home with a camera crew to see for herself how the spill would upend the natural order of Gulf Coast living. Brown’s new film, The Great Invisible, is a meditation on a fatal accident whose deadly effects touched people of all walks of life, from prosperous oilmen to impoverished oyster shuckers.
She spoke with us last week in Los Angeles in advance of the documentary’s March 9 premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival.
TakePart: Both in your decision to forgo a narrator and your choice to interview everyone from surviving Transocean crewmen to oilmen at an oil and gas trade show in Houston, you go to great lengths to present all sides of the spill and its aftermath. Because of that, the film does not editorialize, allowing the audience to arrive at its own conclusions. Are you worried some environmentalists might be disappointed the film isn’t a BP hit job? If, when the film is released, they react like this, how would you respond?
Margaret Brown: I would probably say, “Did you drive here?” What’s funny about that answer is that it’s what every Republican oilman would say. And it’s a fair question on their part. There’s this idea in the oil industry which is “They need it, so let’s give it to them,” which is totally valid. But I also think that, simply, we use too much oil. To plainly say “Boycott BP,” well, that doesn’t get people off the hook from looking at their own personal consumption.
In the film, Latham Smith, a Yale graduate and veteran oil-industry tugboat captain hired to assist with the cleanup effort, says: “People want a car they can drive any damn time they want to; they want a light bulb they can turn on any time they want to. They want air conditioning they can turn on when it’s hot, not just when the wind blows.” Talk to me about the collective responsibility of oil.
We take all this for granted. It’s part of our Western way of life. I’m drinking this [she lifts a bottle of water], which is made of plastic, which is made from petroleum. Hello, right? And I asked you for it. It’s not like, “I’ve made this film, and I will not drink bottled water.” I think I’m just as culpable as anybody. I made the movie to do something about our addiction, but I don’t think that fact gets me off the hook. If anything, it puts me more on the hook, because I now know better.
What does the film’s title mean to you?
It’s all the little things we don’t know about our consumption of oil—like the scene where we learn there’s around 3,500 oil platforms off the Gulf Coast, and some of them are connected to 20 wells each. There’s this underwater factory in the Gulf of Mexico, but we never see it. We just go to the pump, fill it up, and drive off.
Should offshore drilling be allowed?
As we are right now, it has to be allowed. As Latham [Smith] says in the film, “Civilization wouldn’t last three hours without oil.” It’s ridiculous at this stage. We don’t have a backup plan. We need a comprehensive energy policy plan in this country that weans us off the stuff.
Download the fullsize poster here.
One of the film’s most fascinating and watchable characters is Roosevelt Harris, a Good Samaritan type in his 70s who dispenses food and advice to people in Bayou La Batre, Ala., who have been displaced by the disaster. I think he’s the film’s moral compass.
Absolutely. I felt one of the themes was people doing things for money, corporations motivated totally through profit that lose being human. At one point in the film, Roosevelt talks about why he does what he does, and he says, “You don’t have to get paid for everything you do. If you don’t have time to give a blessing, you’re a mighty poor man.”
After all the time you’ve spent researching and making this film, what’s the biggest lesson from the BP oil spill?
I wanted to make the film so people would understand how we are connected to this. I hope people will watch and understand that the issue is gray but that we can do something. I hope the film will lead people to have the conversations we all need to be having, like “Oh, wait, I drive a truck, but should I? Maybe my family should have conversations about energy policy around the dinner table? Maybe I can be part of a group that writes letters to Congress demanding change?”
For updates, like the film's Facebook page here.
TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, is involved in the production and marketing of 'The Great Invisible'.