The greatest trick that Margaret Brown pulls off in her new documentary “The Great Invisible” lies in what she does not do. Throughout a varied series of profound interviews and footage related to the Deepwater Horizon explosion of 2010, Brown does not tell us how to feel, she does not get on a soapbox and she does not even specifically advocate for anything. She shows us that the realities are far too complicated for that.
She simply, masterfully, lays out the threads of the situation in front of us in such a way that what we thought we knew is made devastatingly urgent and new.
Viewers along our coast cannot watch this film like anyone else in the country might watch this film, because it happened right here, to us. We don’t need the helpful subtitles to comprehend the subjects’ dialects, and we have seen the oil on the beaches with our own eyes. What this film did for me was challenge the ease with which I blamed BP and Transocean for what happened. It slowly turned rage into guilt.
Brown spends a great deal of time with two men who survived the oil rig’s explosion and are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder with very little help from their employer, Transocean. I have found it all too easy to forget that 11 men died that day. The survivors interviewed in this film have not forgotten, however, and seem to see themselves both as victims and perpetrators of the disaster.
They also shed light, in no uncertain terms, on the reckless sacrifice of safety for profit. A young roustabout recalls being advised “Don’t use safety as a crutch,” and the macho culture of the business is exposed as a dangerous fraud for which 11 men paid the ultimate price.
Meanwhile, through a kind-hearted realist name Roosevelt Harris, Brown illuminates the economic impact on already low income fishing neighborhoods in Bayou la Batre. In the film, Harris is a volunteer at a church pantry whom viewers accompany on food delivery runs. His sequences bring to mind the best work of Michael Moore like his classic expose of Flint, Michigan, “Roger and Me.”
At an oil industry convention in Texas, wealthy captains of industry, whom my father would term “rich muckety-mucks,” devour seafood and opine for the good old days before our meager current industry regulations existed. A rather droll and intelligent boat captain states quite simply, over a vast spread of crawfish and beer, that people in American couldn’t go more than three hours without the use of petroleum.
When I heard these men, I didn’t feel righteous indignation; I felt foolish and naïve. They might look like jerks, but they certainly weren’t wrong. I might not be in charge of safety practices on oil rigs, but I damn well use their product without nothing less than a sense of entitlement. For a situation as far-reaching as this, Brown does not insult us or those who have lost so much by suggesting a simple solution.
Margaret Brown seems to understand that her work is strongest when it speaks for itself. When the otherwise optimistic Roosevelt Harris states that he wishes he had been had born somewhere other than Alabama, we are faced with the limits of our best intentions in the face of forces to which we are. In a film full of powerful emotional moments, this statement, and the fatalistic truths that it encompasses, hit me the hardest. “The Great Invisible” examines a subject that is so universal and so personal, you might find that you see yourself in this film many unsettling times over.
“The Great Invisible” will make its coastal premiere Nov. 20 at Mobile’s Saenger Theater. The screening will benefit the Bayou Recovery Project, a nonprofit organization that, among other things, runs the food pantry Roosevelt Harris is shown operating in the film, and tickets purchased online through thegreatinvisiblemobile.splashthat.com will make the greatest impact.
Doors open at 6 p.m. for the 7 p.m. screening, which will be followed by a forum with Brown and special guests. Tickets also available through Ticketmaster and the Saenger box office, which is open from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. weekdays.
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