'Great Invisible' focuses on the human ecosystem that was caught up in the disaster caused by the blowout and explosion of the Deepwater Horizon. Included in this web are survivors like Steven Stone who points to where he was on the rig when it exploded.

‘The Great Invisible’ Wins Full Frame’s Best Environmental Film

Environmental winner documents the impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on the ecosystem — the human ecosystem.

Full Frame Festival: A Springtime Cornucopia of Documentaries

With the first weekend of April in the rearview mirror, so is, for Durhamites and aficionados of documentary film, the 2014 edition of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, reportedly the largest of its kind in the United States. Like the weekend’s weather — balmy and spring-like one minute and blustery and cold the next — the festival was eclectic with film topics ranging from Frank Zappa’s 1982 concert in Sicily (view trailer) to the story of volunteers or “interrupters” in Chicago who put themselves in harm’s way to stem the tide of murders ripping apart the city (view trailer). “The Overnighters,” about a North Dakota pastor who opens his church up to the employed-but-homeless, took home the audience choice award.

The Environment Film Award

For the past four years, Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment has sponsored an award for the Best Environment Film at the festival. In selecting the winner we cast a wide net, looking for the one that best depicts

“the challenges we face in reconciling the human drive to improve living standards and the imperative to preserve the natural environments that sustain us and the cultural heritages that define us.”

While films that strongly advocate a specific political agenda aligned with environmental causes certainly fall within that criteria, less overtly political films can be (and have been) selected.

Past Winners

2011: Pit No 8*
2012: Chasing Ice
2013: A Will for the Woods

This year’s crop of films was especially rich and there were seven finalists for our five-member jury* to screen.

We selected Margaret Brown’s “The Great Invisible” about the blowout and explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and claimed the lives of 11 men.

It’s by no means a new topic for a film (see here, here, here) but in contrast to some others taking on this and similar disasters, producer/director Brown (“The Order of Myths”) chose to focus not on the environmental/ecological impacts as we classically think of them but instead on the impacts on the human ecological system. Through the film we learn of the complex network of people whose lives have been bound together by this tragedy. Often in stories about people caught up in a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon, one looks for easy answers — the culprits and the victims. But Brown’s story is far more nuanced and the lines between culprit and victim can at times become blurry.

The Ones Who Escaped

We first meet Doug Brown and Steven Stone — two of the men who were working on the rig when it exploded into a fireball on April 20, 2010. Though they survived the disaster, they are deeply scarred by it, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and struggling to receive what they believed would be appropriate restitution from Transocean, the drilling company that along with BP and Halliburton was involved in the disaster.

The men talk of their disillusionment — how proud they were to be part of the offshore drilling industry and how they now question it. They tell of the slow erosion of redundant safety measures mandated to save money. The culpability of the three companies involved is hard to deny.

The Fisher Communities Decimated

We also spend time in Bayou La Batre — the seafood capital of Brown’s home state of Alabama — where pollution from the spill has essentially destroyed the livelihoods of an entire fisher community. There, Roosevelt Harris, a volunteer for the local food pantry, encourages his neighbors to attend a town meeting to meet with a lawyer to help them get compensation from BP. Later, we see Harris perplexed and discouraged at the empty church where the town meeting was to be — he waits for someone, anyone to show up but no one does. Though the community has been victimized by the oil spill, it seems strangely passive and stoical.

Offshore Oil Town, USA

On the other side of the coin are folks in Morgan City, Louisiana (which has held an annual Shrimp and Petroleum Festival [pdf] since 1967). Morgan City is also hurting from the oil spill. But it’s not the oil spill pollution the residents captured on film are concerned about; it’s the moratorium on offshore drilling ordered by President Obama that they’re up in arms about. After all, many there make their living drilling for oil and the moratorium is threatening their livelihood.

There’s nothing stoical or passive about their response. We see billboards denouncing the president gracing the city’s roadways. And we hear anger and frustration on a local radio talk show. “We don’t need no moratorium,” says one caller. “Let’s secede from the Union.”

Culprits or victims? A little of both?

“The Great Invisible” explores the devastation of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill but focuses less on the environmental disaster than on the its toll on humans and their livelihoods. Pictured above is an oyster shucker from Bayou Le Batre whose working hours were greatly curtailed after the disaster.

Oil Executives Let Their Hair Down

There are a couple of fascinating scenes with six top executives (all male) from the oil and gas industry attending the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston (sponsored by none other than BP). They sit around a table talking shop while sipping drinks and puffing on cigars — an interesting counterpoint to the folks of both Bayou Le Batre and Morgan City with their beat-up pickups and blackened fingernails.

One CEO hails the rebirth of the oil industry. They argue about the future of renewables and coal and shale gas and nuclear — “what’s your poison,” queries one of them. Another wonders, “Is it a false god we’re trying to worship?” When one argues that the only way to reduce emissions is to tax gasoline, the others attack him — “that’s a political statement.” All agree that “the renaissance of oil drilling in the U.S. is on.”

So are these guys the culprits? I guess they’d deny that, saying they are just giving people what they want — cheap gasoline.

Later on the CEOs attend a House hearing on the oil spill. In a humorous exchange a congressman points out that a number of the oil companies represented have oil spill response plans for the gulf that list the walrus as a sensitive environmental resource of concern, noting that it has been quite some time since walruses have made the gulf their home. From the look on the CEOs’ faces, it was clear that at least when the subject of walruses came up, the executives felt they were the victims.

Back to Business as Usual

They looked glum during the congressional hearing, those CEOs, but I suspect their spirits have risen considerably since. In 2012, the combined income for the chief executives of BP, Chevron, ConocoPhilips, Exxon Mobil, and Shell exceeded $95 million. And while profits for the oil industry were down in 2013 relative to 2012, at $93 billion they were not too shabby.

And for BP, despite agreeing to pay out billions, the company’s long-term outlook looks to be quite rosy, especially for offshore oil drilling in the gulf. In 2012, it claims to have been the “largest oil and gas producer in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico.” In November 2013, the company announced that it now has more offshore rigs in the Gulf (nine) than ever before; the most recent addition to the fleet is an “ultra-deepwater drillship known as the West Auriga.” And of the future BP says it “plans to concentrate … activity and investment in the Gulf on growth opportunities … in the deepwater.”

Why the quick recovery for the oil industry? One reason, Brown’s narrative appears to suggest, is the response (or lack thereof) of another part of the human ecosystem touched by the Deepwater Horizon: the federal government. We meet the folks in Congress at those same congressional hearings. We see them do what they do best: hold hearings, deplore what has happened in the gulf, and in the end do nothing. When the film concludes, we learn that not a single piece of federal legislation has been passed in the wake of the disaster to address safety issues.

President Obama is also featured in this human drama. Near the beginning he appears on television declaring a moratorium on deepwater offshore drilling. At the end he proudly announces that “We have more oil rigs operating now than ever before. … We’re drilling all over.”

Is this a fair portrayal a president waffling, even buckling under to the oil industry? Is the president one of the culprits?

An argument can be made that it is not. The reason for the president’s moratorium was to provide some time to revamp the regulations on offshore drilling to improve safety. It was never to stop drilling altogether.

Did the moratorium achieve that objective? Well, there are new regulations. But are they enough? Time will tell as new deepwater drilling gathers steam — let’s hope another disaster akin to the Deepwater Horizon‘s is not in the offing.

We’re All a Part of It

And there’s a part for all of us in the disaster, Director Brown seems to imply by the long take at the very end of the movie driving down the interstate, filled with cars and trucks. Cars and trucks that we all drive and most expect, even insist on cheap gas to operate. If you’re looking for culprits in the Deepwater Horizon disaster it’s easy and appropriate to point fingers at the companies directly involved: BP, Transocean, Halliburton. But perhaps Margaret Brown is suggesting that on some level we are all responsible.

In the words of a tugboat operator from Morgan City: “The idea that civilization can last three hours without oil is ridiculous.”


End Note

* Our jury this year consisted of:

Lisa Campbell
Rachel Carson Associate Professor of Marine Affairs and Policy
Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University

Erin Espelie
Filmmaker, Writer, Editor

Cindy Horn
Co-Founder & Member, Environmental Media Association
Member, Board of Trustees, Sundance Institute

Rebecca Patton
Director/Vice President
Wildlife Conservation Network

Tom Rankin
Professor of the Practice of Art
Director, MFA Program in Experimental and Documentary Arts, Duke University

Ex Officio/Jury Convener
Bill Chameides
Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University

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