A native of Mobile, Alabama, filmmaker Margaret Brown received the 2010 Peabody Award for her second documentary feature, The Order of Myths (Independent Lens, 2009), which was about Mobile’s Mardi Gras tradition. She returned to her native Gulf Coast to make The Great Invisible (winner of the 2014 SXSW Documentary Grand Jury Prize), which tells the human story of the aftermath of the devastating April 20, 2010 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and subsequent spill that still haunts the area today. The film, which Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir calls “mesmerizing,” premieres tonight on PBS at 10 pm [check local listings], on the fifth anniversary of the tragedy.

Brown took time to talk to us a bit about what compelled her to make this haunting film. 

Since you’re from the Gulf area, what was your relationship with the oil industry growing up; was it just part of the background?

My dad was a landman for oil companies when I was really young, which means he went around and negotiated mineral rights with folks who might have oil or gas on their property. But I didn’t realize this till I started making the film. I guess you could say it was in the background growing up since many people I knew had family that worked for the industry. The oil industry is ever-present in the South; it’s around you so much that you don’t think about it.

So why did you make The Great Invisible?

I started to make this film because my father sent me photographs of our Alabama house on the water, and the boom (that was supposed to prevent oil from reaching it) that surrounded it, in the days after the spill. It was heartbreaking and I felt powerless. I felt maybe the one thing I could do would be to make a movie. But then, my interest changed over the course of the four years, and I became more curious about our overall relationship to petroleum and how we don’t understand it – how it’s obscured.

An Alabama shrimper and his wife examine post-spill shrimp
An Alabama shrimper and his wife examine post-spill shrimp, in The Great Invisible

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?

I went in knowing I wanted to make a longitudinal film about the impacts of the spill – I was interested in what happens in a national news story when the cameras go away, and it’s just me, the regional filmmaker with a personal interest in the story, left filming. It’s a challenge, to decide to document something so massively covered in the media – what am I going to find that is different? So I had that high-falutin’ idea going in, but then of course the narrative changed when I got deeply interested in the world of oil, and how we’re all connected to it.

I realized I wanted to make a much broader movie than what happened in my community, I wanted to attempt to dramatically illustrate how we’re all tied into this massive web that we don’t understand. And I didn’t realize how that would feel to get up every morning for four years trying to unravel this web of interconnectedness. But I knew that was the story I wanted to tell. And of course the world of oil and drilling has it’s own language and I had to learn to be conversant in that culture.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

I kept calling back and talking to them and hanging out with them. I think they got to know me as a person, and understood the reasons I was making the film. It was quite hard to get the rig survivors to trust me; it took nearly a year to get them to agree to be in the film. I found out later that at first they thought I was a spy from BP or Transocean.

And did you have any concerns doing a film involving taking a critical look at a giant oil company, either legally or even from a safety standpoint?

It’s the kind of thing you think about and prepare for, but it certainly didn’t stop me from making the film.

Was there anything you really wanted to include in The Great Invisible but couldn’t?

There is some incredible environmental footage that we shot in Alabama with a naturalist named Bill Finch that is some of the best stuff I’ve ever shot. But since the film ended up being more about the human ecology of the spill rather than the environmental toll – which would have involved making a film over 30 years instead of four – I had to cut it. We’re hearing about a lot of the environmental impacts now, and I’ve read scientific articles that cite how we’ll be measuring the impacts for 20 to 30 years, but I was more interested in the aforementioned web of interconnectedness, and getting people to pay attention to that.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.

There is a scene with some oil executives in Houston toward the end of the film that resonates with a lot of people. I think it peels back the curtain a little on what it’s like inside the industry and some of what you hear may surprise you.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

All of the main characters in the film have seen it, and most of them have toured with it, which has been great for audiences to see. I think it’s very hard for pretty much everyone involved to watch, because it’s either very emotional for them or hits quite close to home.

Was there anything that came up that particularly surprised you in the making of the film?

People often ask about how we found Roosevelt Harris, a volunteer at an Alabama church soup kitchen, who leads us through the heart of the fishing community impacted by the spill. At a certain point I knew I didn’t have the best character to show what was going on on the coast and in the Bayou, and so we were showing up at churches since that is so much of how people socialize in the South. And we found a church that had a soup kitchen, and part of what they did was deliver food to people who can’t get to the food pantry for whatever reason. One of the women in charge of the soup kitchen, “Miss Daphne” German, directed Jeff (the cinematographer) and I to get in the truck with Roosevelt for a food run, and within seconds of turning on the camera, we knew we’d found a star. In fact, those first few moments are in the film.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

Just about anything else in my life. Because the film took place across the whole Gulf coast, my boyfriend Jeff and I (Jeff shot most of the film) were often traveling, and trying to capture things in all these different locations sometimes shooting something in New Orleans in the morning and Houston at night.

What are your three favorite films?

This changes pretty much monthly but: The Shining; The Act of Killing; Christiane F. And that’s mainly because I watched or rewatched all of them recently.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Patience and determination. Patience for the shot to be right, patience for characters to talk to you, patience for the structure to work out. But then there are moments of really pushing that aren’t about patience at all. And then there’s just the continuing to make the movie when you have been working on it a long time and just hate it. Just making yourself see it through until you like it again.

What do you want people to talk about and take away from The Great Invisible after they see it?

I’d like to leave that to what I know is a very intelligent PBS audience, but I hope they’ll at least come away thinking about their own relationship to oil.

What film projects are you working on now or next?

Can’t say for now, it’s under wraps!