FULL FRAME: Connections to a disaster

‘Great Invisible’ chronicles Deepwater Horizon explosion
Apr. 05, 2014 @ 05:41 PM

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and releasing billons of gallons of crude oil.

Filmmaker Margaret Brown, who is from the Gulf state of Alabama, wanted to tell the story that she said “kind of happened in my back yard.”

However, Brown did not want to make a film that pointed the finger exclusively at BP Oil, the company that leased the rig from Transocean, for its shortcuts in safety that led to the explosion.

“I didn’t want to tell that story from one side,” Brown said during a Q&A session after the screening of her film “The Great Invisible” at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival Saturday. The film includes footage of oil executives discussing energy issues over drinks and cigars. What those executives say about Americans and energy is worth hearing “whether they are smoking cigars or not,” Brown said.

Asked about the title of the film, Brown said Americans often do not think about how they are connected to oil exploration “when we drive our cars and use plastic bottles.”

The film recently won an award for the best documentary feature at the South by Southwest Festival. At Full Frame, it is among 48 films in competition for several awards. Saturday, it played to a packed house at the Carolina Theatre.

Brown tells this story from the viewpoint of people who worked on the rig, and those who are still affected by the explosion’s aftermath. She focuses on three cities – Bayou La Batre, Ala., a city heavily dependent on fishing; Morgan City, La., the birthplace of offshore drilling; and Houston, Texas, the center of the oil industry.

Doug Brown, chief engineer at Deepwater, is among the workers who tell their stories. Brown and other workers took pride in their jobs at Deepwater, which was “the newest generation state of the art rig,” Brown says. Soon, however, BP took safety shortcuts and laid off employees. Viewers see Brown, years after the accident, in severe depression over feelings of guilt that he “played along” with the company’s policies.

Stephen Stone, who operated cranes on the rig, also recalls a culture that put profits first. When he wanted to get some water to prevent dehydration, he was told “not to use safety as a crutch,” Stone said. After BP overextended itself building ocean oil rigs, “that’s when the caution got smaller and smaller,” he said. Eventually, both Brown and Stone testified at congressional hearings about the disaster.

Keith Jones’ son Gordon died during the explosion. Jones, a lawyer, although not involved in the litigation against BP, has kept close watch on the proceedings, Margaret Brown said.

“We were proud of him,” Keith Jones says of his son in the film. “I bragged about getting Gordon that job, but when that job cost him his life, I had to stop bragging and feel responsible.”   

The Deepwater disaster hurt many Gulf residents who make their living catching and harvesting seafood, and the filmmakers include their stories.

Roosevelt Harris also figures heavily in their story. Through his church, Harris hands out food and other goods to affected families, and tries to rouse them to visit a lawyer preparing the case against BP.

One should not be paid for everything, Harris tells the filmmakers: “Let some of it be a blessing.”

One audience member asked filmmaker Brown if she would screen the film for the N.C. Legislature, which has pushed for drilling off the North Carolina Coast.

“I’d love to,” she said.

According to the film, since the Deepwater explosion, Congress has not imposed further safety legislation on the oil and gas industry. When an audience member asked about that, Brown said Congress just cannot get together.

“We have to demand it,” she said.