Revealing The Great Invisible
Filmmaker Margaret Brown dives into the Gulf Coast wreckage
Filmmaker Margaret Brown is coming home this week for a screening of her most recent documentary, The Great Invisible, an exploration of the lives and life in the coastal region most immediately affected by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010. Austin, of course, is only one home – one kind of home – to Brown, whose filmmaking career (Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, The Order of Myths) has certainly been informed by her time living and working in Central Texas' fertile film scene. [Editor's Note: Austin Chronicle Editor Louis Black has produced these three Brown films.] But her original and actual hometown – Mobile, Alabama – has an altogether different relationship to this film.
"We showed it at the Saenger Theatre, this huge, old historic theatre in downtown Mobile," she says. "It was one of the bigger audiences we screened in front of – 600 people. We flew in a lot of the cast. They got two standing ovations when they came out onstage."
A great many people in Mobile felt the direct sting of the Gulf's environmental/industrial crisis. Numerous residents have loved ones directly employed by any of a number of companies affiliated with Transocean's Deepwater Horizon drilling platform – many lives in the coastal South are intrinsically connected to and reliant upon the oil industry. And their experience is one part of the larger picture throughout the U.S., where we are all dependent upon petroleum products. One effect of Brown's documentary – intentional or not – might be to poke the surface of the American psyche and probe the internal conflicts that rise about our relationship to oil. The United States, at 4% of the global population, somehow manages to gulp about 20% of the world's crude oil production. It's tough to confront our complicity.
"We've screened it now in the South – not as much as we've screened it outside of it," she says of the current tour she is on with the film as it opens in various markets. "One thing I've noticed, particularly in New Orleans, Mobile, and Baton Rouge, is that the film is so emotional for people there."
The Great Invisible, she says, has been sparking response from all corners on this national tour, to varying degrees. "When we showed it in New York, people asked questions like, 'Well, what are the numbers now?' They'd get into the science of it and ask about the environment," she says. "People in the South were more just feeling it. I wasn't expecting quite the level of anger and emotional response that we got.
"I was sitting out in the lobby in Mobile, and people kept walking out, crying. I [would ask], 'Are you OK?' And they'd answer, 'I don't know if I can watch this movie right now.' It's just so emotional for people there."
And the impact has hit closer to home, too. "There are people in my family who are really conservative who watched it and say, 'Now I understand why there needs to be whistle-blower protection,'" says Brown, reflecting on the film's potential to incite questions about the nature of all of our responsibilities and complicities in a disaster of this scope.
"It doesn't feel like we're just preaching to the converted," she remarks. "My hope was that this film would reach beyond the normal documentary audience. ... I think of the movies that really pound home an answer. Do those ever really reach the people they're supposed to reach? I'm kind of trusting people to watch this film, take away a lot of new information, and apply it to their lives."
The Great Invisible opens Friday at the Violet Crown Cinema. Brown and some of the film's subjects will be in attendance at the 6:30pm screening on Friday. See Film Listings for review.