Margaret Brown’s documentary The Great Invisible, recently shown at the 22nd Hamptons Film Festival, avoids repeating known facts about the horrific Deepwater Horizon catastrophe and BP oil spill, which continue to harm ecosystems and marine wildlife, even today. Brown has chosen to “fry another kettle of fish,” by extending her examination of the impact of the Gulf of Mexico disaster on the offshore oil industry, the oil industry, and seafood processing plants in Alabama.
The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe and BP oil spill have been out of the mainstream media for a number of years. Unless one lives on the Gulf of Mexico and makes one’s living from the gulf as a fisherman or unless one was injured as a result of the fire and explosion on the rig, it seems like the disaster and the 11 rig workers who lost their lives have become one more historical record swallowed up in the archives of cultural amnesia.
We’ve essentially moved on caught up in the currents of the present. However, those injured or who have lost loved ones have not moved on. Nor have the communities whose livelihood depended on farming the Gulf for its rich resources recovered completely. Employees of the fishing industry and southern seafood industry many of whom have yet to be reimbursed their lost wages from BP liability litigation are suffering. The damage from the oil spill which has been exacerbated by dispersant corexit (to push the oil to the ocean floor and make it appear all is well), has polluted, corrupted and impaired the ecosystems that support the marine wildlife and ocean and gulf fish and mammals. To what extent this is permanent remains in a backlog of unanswered questions and scientific projections.
She presents a striking expose of what the offshore oil industry has learned, and cautions us about their MO. She includes interviews with individuals who lost loved ones, those who nearly were killed during the explosion, those impoverished and unemployed by the profound economic impact on the seafood industry, and those working on the rigs and in offshore drilling. She was unable to film any interviews with BP employees or BP management.
Using eyewitness testimony, video clips of the Deepwater Horizon rig days before it exploded, clips of congressional hearings on the impact of the disaster including testimony from oil executives and those injured or the relatives of those killed, Brown reveals the culpability of Transocean and BP, and emphasizes the government’s inadequate safety regulations and clean-up protocols. All are responsible for the magnitude of the size of the oil spill, the worst in the nation’s history. She spends time with traumatized survivors of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and with spouses and family members of the 11 men who died on the rig. In her interviews with workers who were hurt, some testify that there were fewer rig employees than were needed because of downsizing, and those present were working longer shifts or taking on additional duties of those. Basically, this was ignored; the problem became invisible.
With church volunteer Roosevelt Harris, she drives down the trash-strewn, trailer-park streets of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, one center of the South’s seafood industry. Harris is cryptic in his discussion of BP’s lethargic response in making the employees of seafood processing companies whole. As he distributes food from the church pantry, we understand that the coastal culture which had been slammed first by Katrina when the hurricane took their homes, faces a worse devastation in the oil spill where they’ve lost their old livelihood. Their ability to easily spring back has been smashed. Harris discusses with empathy how some are living in tents in the woods, others are in trailers, others live in their cars. These are the invisible, without power, identity or place in the larger culture. BP’s $20 billion dollar fund has not reimbursed them for one reason or another.
Brown visits Morgan City, Louisiana (slogan: “Right in the Middle of Everywhere”), heart of the offshore oil industry. In one clip she follows a group of schoolkids touring a rig whose cheerful guide reinforces the rightness of using oil and other resources from the earth for our good pleasure. Yet the guide avoids any discussion of responsibility in the extraction and use of these resources. In other clips, Brown hammers out the leering realities about our dependence on oil which has been homogenized into perpetuating a low cost lifestyle as we take our cars to drive everywhere at our convenience any part of a day. Our dependence on oil remains another invisibility that we do not consider. In clips of a conference and a discussion by former higher ups of the industry who demean the culture’s need for cheap oil (always looking to raise oil prices and glam more profits), we understand the offshore drilling industry’s great motivation to satisfy our hunger for oil because we have taken for granted that cheap oil will always be our portion.
A third “invisibility” Brown intensely investigates is how the public, congress and the oil industry have disappeared the knotty challenges the BP oil spill raised. These challenges have yet to be confronted and untangled; issues like safety, incurring additional spills, clean up and liability.
Conveniently, what is invisible cannot be addressed and sinks like corexit to the bottom of our consciousness. We will only be awakened to the challenges when another disaster erupts to bash its glaring, ugliness in images of fish die offs, dead marine birds smothered in viscus oil, shrimp and crawfish mutations, and wetlands thick with brown ooze. In her documentary Brown tries to bring to the surface what politicians, the industry and taxpayers have preferred to ignore, and she asks this question: to what extent should we allow our society, ecosystems and people to be destroyed by our insatiable greed for fossil fuels?
The film suggests without a condemnatory tone that we are all culpable and the problem is a Gordian knot that is not easily loosened. Corexit has been a false way to lull us into thinking the problem has gone away. The media have not investigated deeply, further lulling us into thinking all is well. Sadly, the oil company CEOs, the populace, the rig workers, shrimpers and employees of the seafood industry shift the blame to the other “actors.”
In the face of the climate change controversy, the use of oil and the hazards of drilling in the ocean or the Gulf should be foremost in the debate. It has been lost in debates about the dangers of fracking and tar sands. If we accept responsibility that our lusts for convenience have controlled us and they are genocidal, then perhaps a greater push will be made against our love for oil and to aggressively develop renewable, sustainable energy sources.
How long before another disaster will top what has already been characterized as the worst oil spill in American history? Brown suggests the likelihood is growing and it will be sooner rather than later unless concrete action is taken. She encapsulates that the moratorium on offshore oil drilling has long been lifted.
There are many more rigs drilling for oil in the Gulf and the drilling business is booming. On the other hand the safety issues have not been addressed. Brown reveals that there are no new regulations to prevent the type of situation that happened on the Deepwater Horizon. Clean-up protocols are as spotty and haphazard as ever, though BP insists in PR campaigns that they are fulfilling their duty, despite complaints that corexit, the cure, is worse than the cause, the oil spill. Nevertheless, there is nothing to compare with the catastrophe of the Gulf spill.
Decades after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, oil balls are still washing up on the coast of Alaska, a poor comparison at best. If the Exxon spill is any indication, the damage done to the Gulf will last more than a lifetime if there is no additional massive spill with all the new drilling taking place.
The greatest problem is that there are those for whom the Deepwater Horizon disaster has been a mere jiggle in their taut line of prosperity, a prosperity that has skyrocketed. These are conducting business as usual and with the help of the government leasing areas to drill (the government collects millions on leases), they are encouraged to continue, despite the wisdom for caution and restraint. It would appear that they and governmental authorities have learned nothing from the disaster.
Brown makes it manifest that they have not been compelled to change, though the industry has been culpable in contributing to the devastating impact of the oil spill in the Gulf. Thus, she makes visible that there will continue to be new rigs constructed and new leases sold; politicians have made sure the offshore oil industry will thrive and burgeon like never before, despite the lower price of oil, despite the need for green, sustainable and renewable energy. For Brown, this above all is “The Great Invisible,” and we must begin to open our eyes and concur that what we do not wish to acknowledge must be made clear and visible. Only then can we begin to work toward correction.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0393081621,B0042FZVT4,0071760814,1603583165]