The Great Invisible is about oil, big oil, in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the newest film in this banner year for petroleum-themed documentary, alongside Big Men and Virunga. Yet while those films take a broad look at Africa, this is a project much closer to home. More specifically, it explores the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. That particular environmental disaster, in which 11 workers lost their lives on a BP rig operated by Transocean, was a major point of political controversy but has since been forgotten by the body politic. Yet that does not mean the problems have gone away.
Director Margaret Brown touches on many, if not all, of the residual difficulties in the region. The families of those 11 who lost their lives, as well as those who survived and emerged with injuries and trauma, are not all pleased with the compensation. The people of the Alabama coast, meanwhile, have been hit hard by the environmental devastation, particularly because of the crucial role fishing plays in the regional economy. Brown seems to speak to all who will talk to her, casting a wide net that that includes everyone from local community organizers to cigar-smoking independent oil men.
The petroleum industry is the most profitable the world has ever known, its impact as internationally wide as it is locally entrenched. A multitude of voices are needed to capture it, more than simply charts and political papers. Brown’s film is at its best as a portrait of the community on the Gulf, a struggling and diverse group of people eking out an existence off of what was once nature’s bounty. Roosevelt Harris, a volunteer at a food pantry in the small town of Bayou le Batre, offers a warm-hearted way into this hesitant society. He travels around town distributing food and trying, without much success, to drum up support for a class action lawsuit. His presence opens up the town for the film, a town already stricken by anxiety.
One fisherman tasked with helping to clean up the Gulf by the corporation begins telling Brown his opinions, before being informed by a friend that his contract doesn’t allow him to talk to the media. Yet in spite of the mood, the testimony builds up. The contribution of local number of starkly photographed sequences of ramshackle houses and mobile homes, architectural portraits of a community in crisis, The Great Invisible slowly and subtly becomes a heartfelt portrait of a community rather than an angry rejection of corporate greed.
That said, the rift between BP and the people of the Gulf is loud and pressing. In this way it borrows some themes from Brown’s last film, The Order of Myths. The earlier work, also shot in Southern Alabama, looks at the vestigial segregation that still dominates the annual Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile. It highlights the disjoint of the city by closely following each separate celebration, giving them equal attention and space. The Great Invisible also profits from the strategy of naturalistic comparison, in this case between the lives of those hurt by the disaster and those of the industry itself. BP, of course, declined to participate in the film. Yet Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer hired to manage the fund set up by the oil giant to compensate the community, was more than willing to talk. His odd energy doesn’t seem dishonest so much as out of touch. Equally striking is a sequence in the end of the film in which Brown spends an evening with independent oil men, drinking whiskey and smoking cigars in blissfully unconcerned caricature. The problem with the Gulf, it seems, is not so much the wickedness of those in the oil industry but rather the sheer size of the gulf between those in the corporate offices and those in the fishing boats.
The troubling result of this revelation is that there are no answers. Even more than that, there isn’t really any dramatic surge in any direction. Much like the now-dormant uproar over the Deepwater Horizon spill itself, The Great Invisible just sort of peters out. Brown’s intelligent, truthful choice to create a film built from the lives of its subjects rather than any outside sense of political rage leaves something of a void in its emotional structure, one that isn’t entirely filled by the many powerful but austere images. It has stirring moments, particularly those featuring the families of the men who were on the rig, but in the end these rest as disparate pieces of a troubling patchwork.