Margaret Brown’s The Great Invisible is a chilling look at the aftermath of the explosion in the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010, that killed 11 men and caused immeasurable damage to the ecosystem and economy of the states near the Gulf of Mexico. Camera in hand, Brown went down to the place where she grew up to capture the struggles and trials of the people who were left without jobs and means to support themselves, not to mention to capture the destruction left behind by what so far is the worst oil spill in American history. Revealing connections between the “big oil guys” and the American government, while chronicling the endless pain of the oil rig survivors and the fears of those unsure whether they will be able to make a decent living again.
Brown is a keen observer, who is able to capture the larger repercussions of the oil spill without forgetting to highlight the purely human, as she does by focusing large part of the film on a charismatic soup kitchen worker called Roosevelt, who imparts wisdom and smiles everywhere he goes. The film could’ve easily veered into sensationalism, but Brown skillfully keeps it grounded and objective, giving all sides of the story equal importance. We talked to Brown in New York City on the eve of the film’s theatrical release.
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The Great Invisible plays out like a horror movie in many ways …
… and I guess that’s a good thing in many ways. What cinematic influences did you have in mind when you were trying to find the right tone for the movie?
Wow. I mean I think the only film I really thought of was Harlan County, USA because I like it a lot, even if it’s not really the same tone. I think when people say what influenced them, is almost never the same tone of the film they make, but I was thinking about that film a lot because you really feel the pace in that film, and I felt my movie was about the South, like how do you show this place?
In those impressive aerial shots at the beginning where we see the oil spill, you make us realize how truly awful this was, it looks disgusting from an aesthetical point of view and we don’t ever get to really see that …
No, those images were important, that’s why they put the dispersant on the oil, to make it sink so no one will freak out, when actually sinking it is the worst you can do with all of those chemicals.
Literally, you were also one of the first people to show up there with your camera, right?
Yeah, we got down there — to the area where I grew up — on the first day when the oil reached the beach. It was nuts.
What do you think that people will be the most surprised about seeing?
I’m hoping people see their connection to it all, because I think that it’s easy to be like “let’s boycott BP” but we’re so entrenched. The surprising thing to me making the film was to see how we’re all connected to it, when you fill up your car what happens, what that means and what the risk is when oil is produced in such deep water. Maybe we can use a little bit less of it or figure out ways to use something else. But I think people will be really surprised by just the government’s entrenchment with the oil industry.
You also capture this complete utter lack of transparency that exists between the government and the oil industry …
Yeah, definitely there is so much secrecy between these two, sometimes just to get answers and facts was so hard because they were so many veils surrounding it.
How many people would you say tried to stop you from making the movie?
You know it wasn’t like anyone was trying to shut us down, it was more like no one would talk to us. They tried to stop us by agreeing not to participate. We tried talking to all the major oil companies and no one would talk to us. The people in the movie are independent, not part of big oil.
At the beginning we also see you talking to this fisherman who has been hired by the oil company to try and “catch” the oil with his net, which made me wonder what kinds of conflicts arose from the fact that this spill left a lot of people without a job, but also created jobs for others. Was there any tension because of this?
There was, yes. I mean, it’s something that happens during most disasters, certain people are compensated and maybe some others aren’t, maybe there’s an oyster shop across the street from another and while one gets compensated, the other one gets like $2000 and they have to shut down. When someone from the outside tries to come in and figure who gets what, there’s always going to be some injustice. Even now, as we’re about to show the film where we shot it, the people at the food bank are worried that because there’s gonna be attention put on them that other people from the community will not like them. They asked me not to put too much attention on them, but they’re like the heart of the movie, like Roosevelt and the people who work with him. Also usually in cases like this, a lot of people need help filling out forms and such, and as you see in the film many people don’t trust the lawyers who show up, so it’s a question of poverty and trust. A lot of these people weren’t helped after Katrina, so they don’t trust anyone.
I wasn’t expecting to see so many instances where people brought up the need to secede from the rest of the country …
Oh my gosh, people in the South definitely think that the Northern states don’t understand. There’s definitely a sentiment like that where they think this is happening to them and no one really cares, because they don’t see it in the media.
It was also very interesting to see how you dealt with religion, which is usually mocked in films. With Roosevelt for example, even if you didn’t focus on his religious beliefs specifically you brought up how he needs to do good for others, and portray this as humanism. Were you trying to make religion not look insane in particular?
No, Roosevelt holds very deep religious beliefs, but we would go shoot with him and we realized he is so full with goodness. He’s pretty opinionated, he’s not all sweetness all the time believe me, but he really cares about people. He was inspiring, and not just him, but a lot of people in the food bank were so good. For me it wasn’t about religion or not religion, but about a sense of caring for other people. Roosevelt was always really worried about children not going hungry, and that’s not really in the film, but that motivated a lot of what he does because he was one of eighteen children, so he probably experienced hunger growing up and I think he wanted to make sure that there was no child left without food. He kinda knew where everyone in the community was and what their situation was like, which was impressive, especially after we see the oil company not treat its employees right, and here’s this guy who doesn’t have very much in terms of material goods, and he’s just being so giving. I thought if I put him in the movie maybe more people would want to be like him.
What else do you want people to do after they watch the film?
This is all so grey, that we can’t expect people to just do one single action. People should watch the movie and decide if they’re gonna use less oil products, or get involved politically or have a conversation about it.
In terms of the oil rig workers who survived, it was really interesting to see them try to pull through, especially because movies rarely allow men to be this emotional. How was it for you to capture this?
It was rough, the interviews with the survivors were the most difficult to get. They were also one of the last things I got, we were going to finish the film like a year early but we didn’t have anything with the survivors and I felt we needed to have them. It was hard to bear witness to their feelings of guilt and confusion. It’s interesting that the only people in the movie who express remorse are people like Doug Brown, who wasn’t even connected to the drilling or those high level conversations and he feels so bad about it. We don’t see BP saying they’re sorry, it’s all about lawyers and that’s really ironic. We also see Ken Feinberg saying he made a mistake and realized he promised stuff he couldn’t deliver. It’s interesting to see who actually says they’re conflicted, it’s not easy to do that.
You also show how the wife of one of the survivors deals with the tragedy through her paintings and it made me wonder if you were identified with her in how you were dealing with this pain through your film?
Interesting. Definitely I made the film because I felt powerless, like this thing was happening to my community. My parents have this house on the water and they were sending me pictures and I’m used to this place being beautiful and instead I saw workers everywhere and my parents were so worried about whether the oil would hit the beach or have to move. Everyone where I grew up felt like this and it was so depressing, so I thought since I knew how to make movies, I might as well make one, cause I didn’t know what to do. I was doing a whole other movie and just dropped it, told the people who were paying for it that I couldn’t make it. Making this movie took me four years, but I had to do it.
You dedicated the movie to your father but I wondered if other than your actual dad, you meant to dedicate this film to all these other men who are father figures in a way?
That’s really much deeper than I actually meant it, but that’s really interesting. That’s really smart [laughs] I should take that! I felt so sad for my dad, because it’s part of his blood to be in this culture of the water and everyone down there, including me, are so tied to the water. I’m a surfer and a swimmer, my dad loves to go on his boat and cast his net and shrimp and it made me so sad to think he might never get to do this again. It made me feel awful that this would taken away from him.
In terms of post-apocalyptic-ness, I felt your film would make a great non-fiction prequel to Beasts of the Southern Wild, because it’s also a celebration of the bayou …
That’s so funny. You know, a lot of people who worked on Beasts worked on my movie, including the same producer, we had a lot of crew crossover and they were all great people. I love that movie.
Have you been approached by studios to turn this into a fiction feature length?
There is going to be a fiction and Participant, who did my movie, are also doing that one and I think it’ll be starring Mark Wahlberg, so no one’s approached me because I think it’s already in motion.
We’ve seen that while commercial films don’t really give female directors the opportunity to tell these stories, non-fiction female filmmakers are doing groundbreaking work all the time. Can you comment on this?
This is my third movie and all of a sudden everyone’s asking me about “what it’s like to be a woman filmmaker?” — like it’s really trendy to talk about that right now and I’m just like “what about the movie, man?” I’m having a backlash, because when I was at SXSW for example no one wanted to talk about the movie, they all just wanted to talk about how I’m a female filmmaker and poor us. I definitely feel that certain things are harder for women, but the focus should be on the work and not how harder it is for women. Women are making badass work! Top of the Lake was amazing for example, hello, what was better than that last year? It’s like a weird ghetto that I’m getting a little bit impatient with. I think documentaries are a little bit easier for women, because people are more disarmed around women and you’re letting sexism help you do your work. People feel like women are better listeners and all these stereotypes, that are not always true … I feel like being a woman has worked against me in some other parts of the industry, but in making documentaries it has always helped me. I guess it’s all really complicated and there’s a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t want to say on the record … [laughs]