These two excellent documentaries examine failed state systems: an unresponsive police department and a negligent oil safety regime.
The Great InvisibleDirector: Margaret Brown
Cast: Douglas Harold Brown, Meccah Boynton-Brown, Robert L. Cavnar, Kenneth Feinberg, Roosevelt Harris, Keith Jones, Latham Smith, Stephen Stone, Sara Stone
Studio: Participant Media
US Release Date: 2014-10-29 (Limited release)
"I can smell that night now. I can smoke, the oil, the insulation. They had to cut it off of me because I was having extreme difficulty moving." Doug Brown stands in his basement, holding his burned red coveralls in front of him. He's remembering the night the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew up, almost four years ago. The chief mechanic on the project, Doug is both lucky to be alive and troubled that he is. "It makes me feel guilty," he says, "because I played along. A lot of things that I was doing I knew were wrong." His wife, Meccah Boynton-Brown, speaks from offscreen. "That is not going to be on the film because you didn't do anything wrong." Doug continues, "Yeah, I feel really guilty for working for them, I feel really guilty for working for BP."
It's a striking moment in The Great Invisible, not least for the lingering emotional and moral conflicts it lays bare. Doug's life is changed immeasurably, of course: where he was once a robust guy, willing to embrace the "kind of a macho world" on the rig and bring home six figures annually, now he has trouble walking down the stairs and each month waits for a $1000 USD check from Transocean that may or may not show up. ("That's my therapy bill that I can't pay," Meccah tells the camera, walking from the mailbox with a bunch of envelopes that don't include one from Transocean.)
The moment does something other than reinforce what you might guess from the essential story of Deepwater Horizon, that it leaves behind damage profound and hidden, affecting lives and livelihoods for decades. It also exposes a relationship between media and people -- "real people", if you will -- that doesn't often appear on camera. For as Meccah's defense of her husband, her effort to stop filmmaker Margaret Brown from including what he's said, is subsequently wrapped into and becomes the defense, it is uncomfortable but also what you expect, an awareness of how media manage and exploit, how media cannot be trusted.
Certainly, this is a primary lesson in any of BP's many feel-good advertisements, on television to this day, where earnest workers in helmets and coveralls tell you how much the company means to improve lives and create jobs. And certainly, this is a mantra for the fossil fuel industry broadly speaking, not just BP, as the Keystone Pipeline lobbying demonstrates daily. Brown's movie -- screening DOC NYC on 20 November and opening in more theaters this month -- is as much about this problem as it is about the "accident", a term that you might question by the time you're done watching The Great Invisible. For even that term is part of the company's image management, a means to suggest it was unavoidable.
The film is not alone in making the case that the explosion and oil spill might be results of cost-cutting and poor planning on the parts of BP, Transocean, Halliburton, and the federal government agencies who were supposed to regulate all of it (New York Times 14 September 2011). Official reports, internal and external, had effects, in that some blame was assigned and some money paid out (in the form of court-supervised settlements).
But the film shows how these effects have effects too, and how people living with trauma and loss survive but also suffer still. As much as TV reports might have focused on the helicopter shots over the burning rig or the underwater camera on he well belching oil for days and weeks, now cameras have "moved on" from the Gulf. You might have already seen stories of courageous survivors or de-oiled pelicans, but here you see oyster shuckers whose hours are cut now from seven days a week to barely one day a week. "The oil spill killed the oysters," says Roosevelt Harris, a volunteer at the food pantry in Bayou Le Batre, "Katrina just wiped the house away and blowed in about 27 foot a water, but the oil spill pretty much put a damper on everything." Roosevelt is driving to deliver boxes of food to neighbors, "I think they just living from day to day," he says, the camera pointed out his truck window as he passes the trailers, school busses, or "old tents", they've been using as shelter since 2011. "I think the state should help these people," he concludes, as the camera cuts to a beaten down mobile home with a hand-painted sign propped up on the back: "Nothing left to steal stay the fff out."
Tales of the Grim Sleeper
Whether or not the painters of this sign imagined a movie camera might pass by to see it, the image makes its own case, revealing a visible, articulate protest that can means to be seen. Access to media changes stories, as demonstrated in pretty much every movie Nick Broomfield has ever made. His newest, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, screening at DOC NYC on 20 November, describes a place by the people who live there. In this, it's like The Great Invisible, as is its focus on trauma and loss, and also the failures of the state to do its job.
Film: Tales of the Grim Sleeper
Director: Nick Broomfield
Cast: Seymour Amster, Pamela Brooks, Nick Broomfield, Christopher Franklin, Nana Gyamfi, Laverne Peters, Margaret Prescod
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
US Release Date: 2014-11-19 (DOC NYC 2014)
The trauma here might be described as serial murder, afflicting a community for decades, taking hundreds of lives. The man accused and arrested, Lonnie Franklin, appears in the film's first moments on a still from Google Maps, as Broomfield remarks, "Lonnie was so much a part of the community that when the Google car went past, he was outside chatting with a neighbor like he always was." It's a brief moment and utterly chilling. For all the surveillance technology available, for all the dreadful possibilities inherent in, say, Google and the NSA, this was a picture that told no one who might have cared anything useful, that allowed the surface to pass as the reality.
This is what media do best, of course, and Tales of the Grim Sleeper is all over that sinister truth. It may be the one plain truth in the film, as the many tales it uncovers have more to do with deceit, fear, and poverty in Los Angeles, and with perennial police indifference and worse. (Under a montage of snapshots and crime scene images, Broomfield reminds us of the LAPD's use of the slang term, "NHI" (no humans involved), referring to murders of "prostitutes and drug addicts.") In its investigation of the policing systems that can't or won't do their jobs, the film takes up themes and upsets in Broomfield's previous work, from Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam and Kurt & Courtney to Biggie & Tupac to his two films about Aileen Wuornos, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer and The Selling of a Serial Killer.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper takes up Broomfield's favorite approach, which is to posit him an outsider with a boom mic, open to explanations from whoever will talk to him about the culture he's investigating, Here' he's accosted early on as a "peckerwood", friends of Lonnie yell from across the street, concerned that this "white boy" is "talking to the women". When Broomfield and team (including his son barney on camera) walk over to talk to the guys, they prove quite voluble, offering their insights on Lonnie, the cops, and life in a place without mobility or hope.
The men's appreciation of the camera is energetic and loud: they laugh and point and push their faces close to the lens. They answer questions, rethink their answers, restate what they remember, and change their stories. Each piece of their performance looks simultaneously honest and preposterous, and that's to everyone's credit.
This film does not mean to uncover or assert a single truth. Rather, it's a film about how truth runs away, how poor neighborhoods are abandoned, how images lie, memories fail, and fear overrides all kinds of self-interests. Neighbors and activists alike pose the question: why would anyone go to the police? You're only opening yourself up for harassment and arrest yourself, when cops ask what drugs you might be taking or whether they might enter your home too look for evidence -- of something.
"Whatever you do, do not call 911," states Nana Gvamfi, a member of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, formed in 1985 when the police in South Central neglected to make public the serial killer's existence. In fact, Franklin was arrested a full 22 years after the first murders, based on an accidental finding of DNA (his son's), the Black Coalition's founder Margaret Prescod recalls that they started by passing out leaflets, then evolved into a formidable media presence, increasingly aware of how to draw attention, to make themselves seen, to help their neighbors be aware that someone was stabbing, shooting, and strangling black female prostitutes.
One former prostitute who knew Lonnie is Pamela Brooks, who essentially takes over the film as soon as she appears on screen. Agreeing to investigate, she drives around with Nick and Barney, calling out to girls on the street, warning them to be careful, advising them of their rights. She broke off with Lonnie one evening, she says, when he wanted to put a collar on her ("I'm not a motherfucking dog"), and since she got off crack and the street, she says ("Four years sober"), she's made it her business to help those still on it (after all, the police aren't doing it).
Like other subjects in Tales of the Grim Sleeper, Pam fills the screen, her face and gestures as expressive any of her language. Insistent, persuasive, and captivating, her performance is ideal as media, as a means and an end. Like The Great Invisible, Tales of the Grim Sleeper gives over its storytelling to its subjects. But even beyond that, its tales become Pam's, as hers become those of other survivors, who describe their experiences in vivid bits, each connected to the others. As the film closes with photos of women still missing or known dead, it makes clear what media can do well, tell stories for those who cannot.