There’s a recurring map graphic in “The Great Invisible” that charts the staggering impact of the 2010 BP oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico and its bordering states, an image that sums up the wide net cast by Margaret Brown’s diffuse but deeply sobering and sympathetic new documentary. Understanding that her subject is a tragedy with many faces, Brown seeks to paint as complex and wide-ranging a portrait as possible, interviewing survivors of the deadly Deepwater Horizon explosion, family members of victims, as well as fishermen, oyster shuckers and others left unemployed in the wake of the devastated Gulf seafood industry. The result may not be quite as distinctive an inquiry into Southern subcultures as her 2009 stunner “The Order of Myths,” but this SXSW grand jury prizewinner nevertheless stands as a uniquely thought-provoking chronicle of an event that, in the absence of any real preventive action taken by oil companies or the U.S. government, calls out for further cinematic and journalistic attention.
Fiery video images bring us back to April 20, 2010, the date that a horrific explosion occurred aboard the Deepwater Horizon, a Transocean-owned, BP-leased rig positioned above the deepest oil well in history. The blaze claimed the lives of 11 workers, and the uncapped well gushed an estimated 4.2 million barrels of oil into the sea over the next 87 days, in one of the worst man-made environmental disasters on record. Among other things, Brown’s film represents a conscious attempt to hear from those impacted by the catastrophe, and also to offer a catalogue of BP’s moral negligence, from its corner-cutting safety lapses leading up to the explosion to its grossly ineffectual cleanup operation afterward.
Among those onboard the Deepwater Horizon were chief mechanic Douglas Harold Brown, who delivers harrowing testimony about the night of the explosion (illustrated in quick, impressionistic blips of footage); he and fellow survivor Stephen Stone poignantly speak out about their sense of guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder. The family of Gordon Jones, a drilling fluids engineer killed in the blast, express their anguish as well as their anger at BP for its lack of contrition or accountability, a $20 billion trust fund set aside to settle claims arising from the oil spill notwithstanding. Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney chosen to administer the fund, is the closest figure to BP interviewed here; although the film doesn’t delve too deeply into the controversial matter of his compensation (by BP) or his denials of numerous claims, his tone-deaf reference to the settlement as a “gift” to locals speaks for itself.
But Brown’s inherent interest in complexity leads her beyond mere finger pointing; she subtly reveals how the entire capitalist machinery of oil production and consumption is entrenched in American life in general, and Southern life in particular. The filmmaker brings her camera and crew to Bayou La Batre, the seafood capital of Alabama, where the decimated oyster population has cost countless workers their jobs and homes. One local hero is Roosevelt Harris, a food-pantry volunteer who encourages others in the community to file claims for the money they deserve; their unwillingness to do so speaks to a collective sense of fear, skepticism and helplessness, as well as class and cultural barriers that impede any sort of meaningful engagement or discussion.
Brown also visits Morgan City, La., the birthplace of the offshore oil industry, where tugboat captain Latham Smith sounds off about the public laziness and complacency that feed oil dependency worldwide. A similar insight arises during the crew’s trip to Houston, Texas, the epicenter of oil and gas production; the oil industry may be a greedy, unchecked behemoth, Brown suggests, but in the absence of a clear plan for viable energy alternatives, it’s a behemoth that understands and plays its role in the sociopolitical landscape all too well. Tellingly, the film opens with audio of President Obama declaring a moratorium on deep-water drilling in light of the oil spill, but closes with him defending his oil record to Republicans (“Don’t tell me we’re not drilling!”), neatly summing up the political contradiction, or hypocrisy, of chastising an industry on which the nation has become so reliant.
Needless to say, “BP declined to participate in the making of this film,” to reference one of the few moments here that gets a laugh. But one of the strengths of “The Great Invisible” is that it targets not only the British petroleum giant and others like it, but also the general public indifference to, and lack of awareness of, the financial and moral costs of harvesting oil. Even the title seems to evoke that willful ignorance, something to which Brown’s documentary offers itself as a small but meaningful corrective.
With so many diverse and competing strands, the densely structured film doesn’t always fully cohere; one scene, of a Catholic mass at the Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival, provides a fascinating but overly hasty glimpse of the strange interplay of religion, oil and seafood in the culture. The cinematography (by a trio of lensers) finds a hard, rugged beauty in the seaside towns and cities visited, while David Wingo’s score supplies subtly moving accompaniment.