'The Great Invisible': What Happened to BP Oil Spill Victims After the News Crews Left?

SXSW

Director Margaret Brown talks about her SXSW-winning and Oscar-contending doc

Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Margaret Brown returns to her Alabama home to film the aftermath of the BP oil spill that transfixed the nation in the spring of 2010 in her new documentary,The Great Invisible, now in theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

For four years, she followed a wide array of characters, ranging from crew members who survived the initial blast, to local residents whose livelihoods were altered, to the lawyer (Kenneth Feinberg) responsible for distributing $20 billion in compensation to victims, to a group of oil executives who share their frank insights over cigars and whiskey.

The result is a complex portrait of the region that THR praised for its “willingness to dwell in the margins instead of cramming in as many eyewitnesses and experts as [Brown] can find.”

The Great Invisible premiered at the SXSW Film Festival, where it went on to win the Grand Jury Prize. It was then picked up by Radius (Citizenfour, 20 Feet From Stardom) who are now plugging the film as an Oscar contender.

THR recently talked to Brown about what life is like in the region four years after the great environmental disaster and how her own perspective changed over the course of making the film.

How did this film evolve over the course of four years of filming?

When I started the film, I wanted to make something smaller about where I grew up in coastal Alabama and how this community was impacted. What really happened when the national media went away? Over the course of four years, the story changed. I started thinking about my own petroleum consumption, and the larger story of oil in America, and how we take it for granted and don't question our connection to it. For me the film is much more about our connection to [the spill], than what BP did wrong.

Read more 'The Great Invisible': SXSW Review

Early on BP handed over $20 billion to the government to be used to compensate victims of the spill. What was the biggest stumbling block in that money reaching the people and businesses that needed it most?

The claims forms weren't simple, and also people were told they didn't need a lawyer. In the film we see Kenneth Feinberg, who administered the claims for a time, at a town hall meeting telling people not to hire a lawyer, to "take the money, it's a gift."

In the end, it wasn't that simple, and people without lawyers often didn't get proper compensation because they weren't used to filling out these forms. Parts of the coast are a culture that still relies a lot on barter and trade — this is a very hand to mouth culture — and there was no acknowledgement of this.

So the result is that the people doing the hardest work on the bottom of the chain are often getting compensated the least because they just don't know how to work the system. And in addition to this there is a large Southeast Asian population in the area, and often there are no translators at the claims centers to help these folks with questions about claims.

Doug Brown, who was working on Deep Water Horizon and survived the explosion, really opened up to you and your cameras, sharing the tremendous physical and emotional trauma he's experiencing. Considering the gross negligence that led to this disaster, which you detail in the film, why is Doug not getting the medical and financial assistance he clearly needs?

It befuddles me. It is hard for me to understand that nearly five years later and after so much emotional and physical trauma, that he still would not be compensated. It's appalling. His wife Meccah has told me that they have had to fight to get him the medical coverage that he needs -- that Transocean [the drilling contractor BP hired to operate Deep Water Horizon] has repeatedly questioned medical procedures that he has needed after the spill, forcing them to prove repeatedly that they are related.

After all the money that BP is pouring into commercials meant to show how everything is back to normal, it is amazing to me that they wouldn't take care of one of their own.

After the oil spill, President Obama temporarily suspended deep water drilling until certain safeguards could be put in place. Yet today there aren’t any new regulations, correct? And hasn’t drilling in the Gulf actually expanded?

Yes, you got it exactly right. Back to business as usual, no new regulations, though certain companies have put in more safeguards voluntarily I think in response to the spill. The problem with that is that since these safeguards are not mandated, the minute these companies decide not do this anymore, there is nothing in place to maintain safeguards - so the industry remains self-regulating.

Read more Oil Spill Documentary 'The Great Invisible' Goes to Radius

One of the most eye opening points-of-view in your film comes from a group of oil executives chatting with each other over cocktails and cigars. Can you talk a little bit about how you got them to appear on camera?

I knew [Bahamas Oil Authority executive] Steve Wyatt from another scene that we shot with him, and I realized that he was a great storyteller with deep knowledge of the industry since he'd worked in it for over 30 years. Also his father is Oscar Wyatt, a legend in the industry. I had on ongoing conversation with Steve over the years, about how the oil industry is silent on many things, and why is that? And what are the things this silence produces? What don't Americans understand about oil? That conversation came out of this.

I think a lot of people look at it at first and just see the cigars and whiskey, but if they can get beyond that first impression there's a lot to be gleaned from that conversation that is different than it first appears.

It’s been over four years since the Deep Water Horizon spill. What are some of the lasting effects people in the Gulf region are still grappling with? And in what ways is life back to normal?

There are still many questions that remain that we will be answering for years to come — how safe is the seafood? How much will the oyster beds recover? In the beginning, when this was more in the news, BP was supporting many studies along the coastline that monitored these questions. But as the mainstream media attention has dwindled, many of these studies have lost their funding from BP. Although other independent studies have been done, and BP has promised to make the area whole, if there isn't the same amount of monitoring supported financially, it is much harder to measure the impact.

In addition, the tourist areas have been cleaned up much more than the commercial fishing areas have. I can't help but think it's because there is more money there and people are savvier with the claims forms and have good lawyers. But even so, there are still cleaning crews in these areas for the tar mats that are still coming up from the Deepwater Horizon.

Life is back to normal in the sense that the well was capped, life went on and people are resilient. But there is still nothing in place to ensure that this does not happen again, the next time a deep water job isn't going so well, and some corners are cut to bring it in on time and under budget.

‘The Great Invisible’ opened on Friday and is playing at the Sundance Sunset Cinema in West Hollywood and The Village East Cinemas in New York.

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