The Maidstone. East Hampton, NY.
Interview: Rob DeStefano

The Great Invisible

Sifting through the perspectives surrounding the worst oil spill in American history is no easy task. Documentarian Margaret Brown tackles the events at the Deepwater Horizon in her aptly titled and accoladed film The Great Invisible.

Inflatable Ferret: The Great Invisible covers a local event with national implications. Did growing up in Alabama make this story more personal for you?

Margaret Brown: Yes. I grew up there and it was happening in my parent’s backyard, at their house, which is on the water. You know the orange booms that BP put out to prevent the oil from coming in? Those were all around my parents’ house. My dad sent me all these pictures. It was just really oppressing. I made two other movies and I was working on something entirely different, but I decided to switch gears and do this movie.

IF: What was the tipping point that made you change projects?

MB: My parents seemed so upset. It wasn’t just them. Everyone in the region was asking, “What’s going to happen?” I didn’t know what I could do. I felt really powerless, so I thought I could create something that addresses this. When I started the film I thought it was just going to be about my community, but it became a lot bigger. It became about the oil industry and how we’re all connected to the consumption of oil. My story is still focused through the lens of the BP spill.

IF: What was the research process like going into this?

MB: Oh god. It’s almost like learning a different language. I don’t know if you know anything about the oil industry?

IF: No, not much.

MB: My dad was a land man in the oil industry so he had a background. He’s now a country songwriter. I had no idea that’s what he did when he was younger. So he helped me understand some of what was happening. In the south, a lot of people work in the oil industry and a lot work in the fishing industry, so I had affected contacts.

IF: There are so many different ways you can go about telling this story. Any particular documentaries that inspired you or that you drew from stylistically?

MB: A lot of Barbara Kopple’s work. She inspired me. This film is somewhat of a secret activist film in a way, but I don’t like the way many activist films are structured. They can preach to the converted. I wanted this film to be a little more open.

IF: How did you go about keeping some objectivity to what could have been a very subjective project?

MB: I think you’re always subjective because you always have a point of view, but I’m always sort of curious about what is the point of view I don’t agree with. There is a truth in that because there always is. This happened in my backyard so of course I was very upset, but then I thought about the oil industry’s perspective since those guys are well educated. I wondered what they had to say. I started interviewing people in the industry. Not all of them made the film, but it did teach me some of the technicalities and language of their industry.

IF: I imagine dissecting the workings of a major industry can be challenging. Any background in business?

MB: Just the business background of making three movies and having to produce them. Which I think is definitely an education!

IF: It certainly is. What was the funding like for this film?

MB: I was at the Peabody awards for my previous movie and I went in with a proposal for the woman at PBS, and was basically like, “I’m from this area. You should give me money to go down there now.” She and a bunch of other funders came together at once and all got me down there the next week. Participant Media, behind The Inconvenient Truth, got involved.

IF: These collaborations were apparently fruitful. You won the Grand Jury Award at SxSw. How did it feel to get your voice out there?

MB: That was great. We had packed screenings. A lot of the main characters in the movie were able to attend. It was especially meaningful for them because part of the movie is about the people who were on the rig who survived, and they’re still suffering from PTSD. In a way, it was part of their healing process to have people hear their story.

IF: How do you think the relationships you made working on this film will affect your future projects?

MB: It always changes you. I think one of the reasons I like documentaries is because they expose you to people you would otherwise never meet. You have to constantly be questioning, “What’s my point of view and is that my opinion because I’m just not listening to what else is being said?” I try and always be open to what others are saying and avoid just putting my perspective on it.

IF: Any projects in the works?

MB: There are a few things brewing, but I haven’t committed to anything yet. I have to travel with this film for about six weeks, so after that.

IF: Favorite movie you’ve seen this year…?

MB: I really loved Only Lovers Left Alive, the Jim Jarmusch film.

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