I was happy to see that Margaret Brown’s deserving documentary “The Great Invisible,” on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its aftermath, nabbed the Grand Jury award at this year’s SXSW. While the doc competition lineup was strong, Brown’s film displayed the tautest and most skillful chops in terms of dynamic storytelling -- something that’s become increasingly important with the abundance of documentaries being made.
What is the story of the Deepwater Horizon disaster? Most people know what they saw on the news back in 2010 -- a gargantuan oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 men and causing hundreds of millions of gallons of oil to chug mercilessly into the waters of the area, reaching its tarry claws to the coastline and wreaking havoc on both the environment and those whose livelihoods depended on the ecosystem for business.
But Brown’s interested in the long-term story. Our mediated culture is obsessed with the tragedy of right now, while often losing interest in ramifications that can play out for decades. That stuff’s usually shelved under “less sexy.” What’s happened to the victims and victims’ families in the four years following the catastrophe?
Brown has chosen her subjects wisely, so we get a full-spectrum view of Deepwater Horizon. She visits with two men, Douglas Brown and Stephen Stone, former oil rig employees who both survived the explosion. They’re clearly suffering both mentally and physically from the trauma, struggling with survivors’ guilt and major income depletion.
She spends time with the good-natured Roosevelt Harris, who runs a mobile food pantry to help those in need following the disaster. He must be over 65, but has the spry doggedness of a man half his age. Meanwhile Brown interviews Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney in charge of BP’s Victim Compensation Fund. Needless to say, he’s the slickest of the bunch. But he provides some shrewd perspective on the hugely sizable task the company faced after the explosion -- one, it should be noted, BP hasn’t followed through on. Stephen Stone and Douglas Brown still await their promised settlements.
The film also has an elegant aesthetic as it moves through the green and muggy small towns and cities in Alabama, Texas and Louisiana, creating a portrait of the American South in crisis. Of course, it’s no longer a big and flashy crisis. It’s rather one you have to look closely to see -- invisible to some, but felt by many.
"The Great Invisible" premiered at SXSW 2014. RADiUS opens the film, from Participant, Friday, October 29.