Margaret Brown’s documentary The Great Invisible explores the true cost of cheap oil. (Courtesy of Participant Media)

The Next Oil Spill

According to a new documentary, we’re all responsible for the BP disaster.

BY Patricia Aufderheide

When do our consciences and our concern with quality of life begin to tip the balance against our cheap gas, our plugged-in homes, our plastics-pervaded daily lives?

For a film that takes on the big question of what the post-Deepwater Horizon oil industry means to the people of the bayou and beyond, The Great Invisible, which opens in limited release on October 29, is remarkably short on denunciation of Big Oil. Rather, the film explores not only the cost of the spill, but why a similar disaster is likely to happen again: because of us.

“There’s a whole factory under the Gulf of Mexico that powers a lot of our lives, and we’re all connected to it, and we don’t realize it,” Margaret Brown, the film’s director, said in March at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival, where The Great Invisible took top prize among documentaries. As the film shows, 3,500 oil platforms currently stand off the Gulf Coast, some connected to 20 wells each. None of them are any safer, necessarily, than Deepwater Horizon.

“That’s the story I wanted to tell,” she says. “It’s about all the things we don’t know about our consumption of oil, and our part in it.”

Brown, who grew up in Mobile, Alabama, saw the impact of the BP oil spill firsthand. Her dad suddenly couldn’t fish off the pier. Whole parts of the seafood industry collapsed. Tourism, the ecology and public health all took a beating, not only from the polluted water and beaches, but from unemployment and dislocation. All of this, she learned, is the expectable collateral damage of a production process that’s going to continue full tilt until people understand the true cost of cheap gas.

In charting the human repercussions of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, the film’s cinéma vérité style is astonishingly intimate. This is the rare documentary that crosses race and class lines, welcoming viewers into a discourse with many different voices. We meet, among others, rig workers with PTSD; an African-American food bank volunteer who serves hungry families of out-of-work shrimpers; a bereaved lawyer who wants BP to apologize for his son’s death; and a table full of oil industry executives who frankly discuss why their jobs are safe.

It wasn’t easy to get that kind of access. When Brown arrived, many potential subjects had signed consent agreements with companies that silenced them, or were afraid of blacklisting. “Some people thought I was a company spy,” she says. Her local connections, and months of staying in touch and talking, linked her to her subjects.

Of all the voices, the oil executives were the hardest to find.“I asked for interviews with the five biggest oil industries and nobody wanted to talk to me,” said Brown. A tugboat captain introduced her to several oil executives from smaller companies and intermediaries.

“What makes Americans think energy should be cheap?” asks one executive. Natural gas is cheap, points out another, but has other costs: “So it’s just a question of, ‘Pick your poison.’”

Until oil is priced more appropriately to the real costs of making it, the executives say, the pace and terms of the frenzied production below the surface in the Gulf will continue. They all agree: Without political action, oil will stay cheap.

We also see the cost of cheap gasoline in the brutal and dangerous costcutting measures of the drilling companies; in the faces of the children of a dead worker; in the puzzlement of the seafood workers who can get compensation if they have paperwork, which they have never had in their working lives; in the stomach-turning appearance of the sick sea animals caught in oil-sticky nets. And there will be more such evidence. Among other things, in March, BP got permission to resume Gulf drilling.

Brown asks us respectfully to consider: When do our consciences and our concern with quality of life begin to tip the balance against our cheap gas, our plugged-in homes, our plastics-pervaded daily lives?

Listen to the people of The Great Invisible. The wife of a rig-explosion survivor said at the SXSW opening, “I would like to see more people stand up for what’s right, and not see these big companies get away with hurting people and pocketing profits.”

The bereaved father, on his way to a public hearing featuring the company that never apologized to him, says in the film,“Somebody ought to feel something other than greed.”

Roosevelt Harris, the food bank volunteer, says, “You don’t have to get paid for everything you do; let something be a blessing.” His comment contrasts with the calculated silence of BP.

It’s not up to BP to feel something other than greed, of course. According to Brown, it’s up to us. “Did you drive here in a car?” she asks me. “Do you drink water from a plastic bottle?”

Let’s let one of the film’s subjects have the last word, said at the SXSW opening: “Talk to your politicians. It starts from the grassroots. I hope this film changes the conversation about the cost of energy.”

Patricia Aufderheide, a professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, was culture editor of In These Times from 1978 to 1986. Now a senior editor of the magazine, her most recent book is Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright, co-authored with Peter Jaszi.

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