Fire in the Night: Edinburgh Review

Fire in the Night - P - 2013
Solid evocation of late-80s maritime tragedy makes sterling use of archive materials.

Anthony Wonke's British documentary on the 1988 Piper Alpha oil-rig disaster in the North Sea won the Scottish festival's Audience Award.

A soberly moving account of 1988's 'Piper Alpha' North Sea oil-rig catastrophe that claimed 167 lives, Fire in the Night has the makings of a career breakthrough for veteran documentarian Anthony Wonke. A notable critical and popular success when world-premiering at Edinburgh, it scooped the festival's revived Audience Award just as it was appearing on a small handful of UK screens.

Partly-funded by BBC Scotland, it could obtain further domestic cinema showings in conjunction after television airings on the disaster's anniversary, July 6. Overseas, this straightforward but sensitive account of a man-made nightmare will be of interest to festivals majoring in non-fiction fare, especially in the wake of 2010's well-chronicled Deepwater Horizon horrors in the Gulf of Mexico.

As title-cards inform, Piper Alpha was and remains the "world's worst offshore oil disaster," leaving just 61 survivors from a total crew of 228. Talking-head present-day interviews with over a dozen of of these men are combined with television footage from the 1970s and 1980s, recreate a time when North Sea oil was a new and exciting source of revenue for the UK. Shots of the colossal rigs and experimental equipment constructed to extract the petroleum have a science-fictional air of Contact and Pacific Rim ("machinery has bred machinery...")

But the main focus is on the particular events that occurred on the fatal Wednesday night when a series of explosions ripped through the colossal Piper Alpha rig, some 112 miles from the Scottish shoreline. What followed is presented partly by functional dramatized recreations, illustrated with blueprint diagrams, and partly in the form of present-day interviews. Each stage of the cataclysm is recounted with harrowing precision by the survivors, many of whom were forced to take extreme measures in order to cheat apparently certain death. 

One recalls jumping from a great height into a hazardous void, landing in an angry sea whose surface was a boiling mass of oil - thus presenting the hideous choice of either drowning or being burned alive. Issues of fault and blame are only fleetingly mentioned here, though end-titles state that the rig's operators Occidental were "heavily criticised" in the ensuing enquiry. "They were looking to cut costs all the time," one worker ruefully notes. 

The tone is necessarily grim and somber, albeit leavened by a certain mordant streak of British humor that doesn't mask or lessen the palpable sorrow felt by the interviewees. Mostly working-class blokes from Scotland and northern England, these now middle-aged, retired chaps tend to hold their emotions in check as they relive their horrendous hours in what one terms "a cacophony of hell," but every now and again their composure falters and tears brim irresistibly to the surface. 

It's absorbing, quietly eloquent material, easily strong enough to render any musical accompaniment superfluous. Unfortunately Wonke adheres to what's become the default mode of mainstream non-fiction film-making: his overuse of Andrew Phillips' doom-laden, sometimes thriller-like score occasionally veers beyond the merely intrusive. But despite this heavy-handedness, the conscientious film is consistently impressive and even awe-inspiring in its presentation of stunning, horrifying images from a quarter of a century ago.

Venue:  Edinburgh Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Production companies:  STV, Berriff McGinty
Director:  Anthony Wonke
Producers: Stephen McGinty, Anthony Wonke
Screenwriter: Anthony Wonke, based on the book by Stephen McGinty
Executive producers:  Alan Clements, Michael McAvoy, Ewan Angus, James Hayes, Charlotte Moore, Mark Thomas
Director of photography:  Mike Eley
Editor:  Steve Ellis
Music:  Andrew Phillips
Sales: STV Productions, Glasgow
No MPAA rating, 93 minutes