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After Gulf oil spill, filmmaker returns to see what happened when the cameras had gone

More than four years ago, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, gushing oil into the Gulf Coast for almost three months before it was capped. Despite settlements and clean-up efforts, some communities have never fully recovered. Filmmaker Margaret Brown joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss her documentary, "The Great Invisible," which examines the fallout.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now: the continuing effects of the Gulf Coast oil spill.

    It may not be in the headlines as much as it once was, but some communities are still coping with its aftermath.

    A new documentary showing in select theaters around the country returns to — the spotlight to those issues.

    Hari Sreenivasan talks to the filmmaker.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It's been more than four years sense the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history fouled the waters off the Gulf Coast after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. Oil gushed into Gulf for almost three months before it was capped. Eleven people died.

    Since then, billions of dollars have been paid in settlements, shorelines have been cleaned, and areas have been restored, but some residents, businesses, and environmentalists say some places along the Gulf Coast have never fully recovered.

    A new documentary called "The Great Invisible" highlights some of those issues.

  • MAN:

    I'm used to seeing dirt, sand, something like that, but I ain't never seen no kind of black — like a black, like, oily look. I just caught these shrimp. Look how they look. These shrimp, see the black in them and stuff? That came out of the water. Like, that — that came out of that shrimp. While that shrimp was in the freezer freezing, that is what came out of the shrimp.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Filmmaker Margaret Brown joins me now.

    So, what was it that you were trying to achieve when you set out to make the film?

    MARGARET BROWN, Director, "The Great Invisible": Well, when I started to make the film, it was very personal, because I'm from Alabama.

    I grew up on the Gulf Coast. And my father started sending me pictures of his house, which is on the water, and it was surrounded by the oil boom — or the orange boom that the volunteer fire department had put out to prevent the oil from reaching the shoreline.

    And there were all these workers working around the house. It just was really — sort of didn't look like his house anymore. And it felt very personal. And then I started talking to people that I had grown up with, and people just didn't really know what to do. Like, in a hurricane, which happens a lot in the South, people know what to do. There's, like, a checklist. But, with this, no one knew what to do.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Now, you also have access to footage from inside the Deepwater Horizon, and you talk to some of the people who were actually on the rig when it exploded. But here they are years later, and they're struggling even with basic health care needs.

  • MARGARET BROWN:

    Right.

    Well, yes, Doug Brown, who was one of the people who was on the rig, he was the head engineer. He gave me a tape that he'd made to show his family what it was like to work on a rig, because he was really proud of his job. And I went home and looked at it, and I just couldn't believe it. It was like the Titanic, you know, seeing this footage. It was incredible to be able to use it in the film.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, what are some of the struggles that they're living with today?

  • MARGARET BROWN:

    Well, he has a lot of injuries from the accident.

    And at every step, Transocean and BP has fought him and said, you know, you have to keep proving that your injuries are related to the spill. So he keeps having to — he lives in Portland, Oregon, or near Portland. He has to fly to Houston, check in with their doctors and undergo like the treatment there, instead of doing it where he lives. And he's had multiple operations.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    One of the things that this region conjures up is people who are resilient after hurricanes.

    And one of your characters, an interesting thing that he said, that this isn't like a hurricane where we can just rebuild our house.

  • MARGARET BROWN:

    Right.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    This is, our entire livelihoods are gone.

  • MARGARET BROWN:

    Right.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    There are these deep economic consequences that still have ripple effects there.

  • MARGARET BROWN:

    Yes.

    I mean, it hit really hard. And we profiled this community called Bayou La Batre, which the fishing community in Alabama. And like I said before, people — people know what to do when there's a hurricane. They know how to rebuild.

    With all this uncertainty, like, you know, a lot of scientists have said this might take 30 years to figure out what the environmental damage is. So there's so much uncertainty. It's really hard to know what to do. And also, you know, a lot of businesses, especially small businesses, are closing because the oysters just haven't recovered. A lot of the fishing areas haven't recovered, and it's tough.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And you also have scenes that are kind of interesting from some oil executives in a very informal and casual setting. Tell us a little bit about that. What was that like?

  • MARGARET BROWN:

    Well, I felt like there's things that people in the industry understand or, you know, think about every day that we as Americans don't really think about.

    You know, there's this there's this factory under the Gulf of Mexico that we're all connected to. And I felt like, if I can show it from the industry perspective, in addition to how this affects people all along the coast, it's more of a broader portrait, because, I mean, we're all connected to it.

    And I definitely wanted to include their viewpoint as well. I just felt like it wouldn't be a complete portrait without that.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Did it make you think about your relationship with oil and how we are using it every day?

  • MARGARET BROWN:

    I mean, definitely, the film switched like halfway through between — I thought it was something just about, what happens when the cameras go away on the Gulf Coast, you know? Like, I'm from there. What — is it going to change, you know, if I shoot a film over a long period?

    And then, you know, about a year-and-a-half in, I got really interested in how I'm connected to it. We're driving up and down. We're flying places for interviews. I started thinking about my own connection to all this and how we're all connected to it and what we don't think about when we fill up our car.

    So I kind of wanted to make a broader film. At a certain point, I realized just a reactive film about what happened to a small place, it was a bigger issue.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Filmmaker Margaret Brown. The film is called "The Great Invisible."

    Thanks so much for joining us.

  • MARGARET BROWN:

    Thank you.

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