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Margaret Brown’s excellent ‘The Great Invisible’ educates and infuriates

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Margaret Brown’s documentary, “The Great Unknown,” does what so many excellent documentaries does: It educates and infuriates.

The film, which won the jury prize for best documentary at SXSW, takes a multi-layered look at the cause and fall-out of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that led to the worst oil spill in American history. As editor Robin Schwartz said after the film’s Thursday screening, the title nods to the hundreds of thousands of miles of pipeline that helps engine America – a country that consumes about 20 percent of the world’s oil despite having roughly four percent of the world’s population – but it could just as well be a reference to the thousands of people affected by the disaster.

One of those groups of people is the employees of TransOcean Ltd., the offshore drilling contractor that worked the Horizon rigged that drilled BP’s oil. Home video footage from TransOcean’s chief mechanic Doug Brown showed the rig just days before the explosion. The unsteady camera work looks like found footage, and feels like a horror movie with the disaster pending.

Brown’s voice sounds happy and proud as he shows off his workspace on the home movie. Contrast that with the sullen and scarred Brown who discusses the explosion as we witness footage of the watery hellscape. Brown is one of several TransOcean employees Brown introduces in the film, revealing the personal toll and trauma inflicted on a crew of men who lost 11 of their peers. As the men, and family members of those who lost their lives, detail, the accident happened in large part due to cutting corners. BP incentivized TransOcean to make the operation more efficient, which inherently made it more dangerous. The desire to make a (larger) profit had massive personal costs.

The film also focuses on the victims on land who paid a heavy price from the explosion. Hundreds of miles of Gulf Coast are lined with small rural communities who rely on the Gulf and its aquatic life to make a living. Following the disaster, work came to a halt, and people who treaded unsteady economic ground before April 20, 2010, slipped through the cracks. With seafood production halted, in part based on an edict from the president, jobs were lost, people moved from their houses and poverty grasped at people’s lives.

Brown doesn’t take a political stance in the film, but makes it clear that the Obama administration and Congress did little to punish BP or reward the victims of the spill. Once a $20 billion relief fund was set in place, the issue was pushed from public consciousness, as some victims of the spill battled for their due compensation while others shrunk from the confrontation due to ignorance, pride, or fear of reprisal. The fishing communities of the Gulf Coast also had a cruel irony holding them hostage – the government tried to protect them but ended up making their situation worse. Meanwhile the oil companies skated from meaningful retribution from the government.

Brown, who chronicled her native Alabama in “The Order of Myths,” started “The Great Invisible” as a portrait of a victimized community that many people had left behind in the wake of an irresponsible disaster ignited largely by greed. But she acquired more funding halfway through the project – leveraging the Independent Television Service with her Peabody award – and was able to broaden the scope to take a wider look at the oil industry.

After showing us the depression and struggle of the TransOcean employees and Gulf residents who lost their livelihood, Brown introduces the audience to oil executives tap dancing in front of Congress, throwing around millions at drilling auctions (with lease money going to the U.S. government) and indulging in martini dinners in Houston.

Their excess and lack of accountability stands in discomfiting relief to the humble people of the Gulf Coast – a group best represented by a noble man named Roosevelt who drove back-roads and opened his church’s kitchen to feed his struggling community members.

Brown shows that the head honchos of the big five oil companies make insane profits while spending less than one percent of their budget on safety measures, but she also makes it clear that they are just playing the game they’ve been allowed to play. As are the oil execs in Houston, who discuss the merits of alternative energy, while reveling in their continued windfall through oil and our country’s reliance upon it.

“The Great Invisible” makes it very clear that there remain so many questions – Why aren’t victims being compensated? Why do oil companies get away with such blatant disregard for the safety of their employees and the environment? Why isn’t there more regulation? Why did BP only clean up less than 1/3 of the worst oil spill in history?

What isn’t clear is why there is not anybody being forced to come up with answers. Maybe Brown’s documentary will help shed some light on that travesty.