‘Beyond Pollution’: BP and the Backstory
to the World’s Largest Accidental Oil Spill
Barker White, “Beyond Pollution”
Opus Kids-Creative Cinematic Connection/Spill Productions
2012, 91 min., DVD, $25
Eleven workers killed, individuals’ lives and businesses ruined, an ecosystem poisoned. Gulf Coast residents won’t soon forget April 20, 2010, the day British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, a swelling column of black smoke jetting thousands of feet into the sky above blue waters. If you were old enough to watch just a fraction of the around-the-clock news coverage, you knew what had happened and why: a blowout preventer failed and Halliburton used faulty cement. In the ensuing weeks, the news media followed the flow of the underwater plume and swirling slicks; it followed the slow, chaotic, and controversial cleanup efforts as well as the acrimonious Capitol Hill hearings. You saw the aftermath, too: the countless images of oil-coated pelicans, shimmering film on seawater, dead marshes, and oil-moussed shoreline. In time, a picture emerged of the disaster’s catastrophic impacts on the region and peoples’ livelihoods.
What caused this tragedy? Who was responsible? And how long before the ecosystem recovers? These are the questions writers and producers set out to answer in “Beyond Pollution,” their first feature-length film and an unnerving documentary. What they discover and present—the backstory, the causal chain—is what viewers didn’t get in media coverage at the time or in documentaries later produced and aired by major media outlets, some underwritten by oil industry advertising.
The film’s writers and producers—Harper Robinson, Chris Shaw, Alisha Mims, and Barker White—did their homework, and it’s evident to audiences. To date, this self-described “passion project” has garnered Emerging Filmmaker and Focus awards as well as official selections at a dozen domestic and international film festivals. The documentary’s attention-grabbing strength isn’t found, however, in beautiful cinematography that shows unforgivable ugliness and a paradise lost. Its claims about causation and culpability aren’t made or buoyed by such transparent emotional appeals. The filmmakers focused instead on finding the facts and piecing together a persuasive narrated montage of news clippings, newscast footage, and congressional testimony to chart the country’s oil policy’s evolution from the days of the Oil Embargo through Reagan-era deregulation to the corporate and governmental collusion greased by a presidential administration top-heavy with former oil executives. It was this petroleum-friendly environment, the actor Dean Cain narrates, that nurtured BP’s safety-first-only-in-word corporate culture. What else could adequately account for the company’s lucrative relations with Uncle Sam despite a record of 8,000 oil spills and thirty-eight employee deaths between 1990 and 2010?
With the historical context established, the film’s succeeding sections address and answer the remaining questions, albeit with less clarity and coherence. When the filmmakers adjust their focus from the background to the blowout, cleanup, and initial spill effects, they also change what primary sources they use, to what extent they use them, and how they frame and present the information to viewers. The words of interviewees—of local political leaders, coastal residents, cleanup workers, attorneys, and small business owners—replace those of the writers and narrator. With these shifts, however, the film loses a little of its structural integrity. As I listened to attorney Mike Papantonio, for instance, or Billy Nungesser, president of Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, I sometimes lost sight of the correlation between their thoughts and the film’s thesis. How did their words reveal and back the film’s claims, the answers to its leading questions? What were their responses supposed to help me understand about the disaster and its impacts? For interviewees, understandably, the questions of cause, responsibility, and effect often seemed inseparable, especially so close in time to the event. To clarify both the distinctions and connections and thus minimize the ambiguity for viewers, the filmmakers could have used the narrator more consistently and effectively in the documentary’s latter half.
By the film’s conclusion, what resonated most powerfully for me was the thorough, well-documented, and convincing analysis of the past events—the politics and corporate mergers—that culminated in the April 20, 2010, explosion, the attempted cover up, and the questionably successful cleanup. Some viewers might question even this achievement, however, because of the writers’ and producers’ obvious enmity toward Big Oil. One can hear it in the narrator’s tone of voice. BP, moreover, is featured only in excerpted news footage that shows, among other things, a burning Deepwater Horizon oil rig and a dour CEO, Tony Hayward, denying specific knowledge of the spill’s precipitating events and his company’s subsequent cover-up/cleanup efforts.
That “Beyond Pollution” doesn’t give Hayward or other company executives a chance to clear the water—that is, to speak in defense of themselves and their actions—could be because requested interviews were denied. More likely, however, the omission is purposeful—and that’s a good thing. By the film’s end, viewers hear from the Gulf Coast’s residents and the communities affected directly and forever by the spill and by the powers beyond their control that created BP’s opportunities. These voices and the points of view shared in “Beyond Pollution” are the ones too often omitted or glossed over in more polished or better financed documentaries. In combination with the backstory, these perspectives make “Beyond Pollution” an immensely disturbing and valuable documentary, one that deserves a much larger audience.
To view the film, you can purchase it on DVD from the filmmakers’ website. A digital version also will be available by Earth Day in April. Anyone interested in hosting a screening can also contact the producers directly through their website.
Fred MacVaugh, Reviews Assistant Editor