In ‘Black Tide,’ filmmaker Joe Berlinger tracks BP oil disaster recovery
By Dave Walker
“Black Tide: Voices From the Gulf” airs at 8 p.m. Thursday (July 28) on Animal Planet.
“I am amazed at the positive spirit of the Gulf Coast residents,” he said. “After so much natural and man-made destruction, I might have moved on to another place if I had been a resident. Therefore, I think this country has a responsibility to make sure the area is restored and the people are taken care of.”
Among the familiar local faces in the film are Al and Sal Sunseri of P&J Oyster Co., James Carville and chef John Besh. Another character in the story, University of Georgia marine sciences professor Mandy Joye, has been studying the sea-floor impact of the spill. BP also gets its say.
I interviewed Berlinger, now working on another film project in South Africa, via email. Here’s the edited Q&A:
You do a great job of capturing the coexistence here between the fishing and oil-and-gas industries. It’s not immediately evident to outsiders, and vexing once it’s observed. Was it something you understood when you started the project, or something you discovered once underway?
When I started the project, I thought I was signing on to a straightforward tale of environmental destruction. Once we started embedding ourselves in the region, the great discovery was learning about this complex co-existence and just how vexing the problem is. It’s easy for outsiders to point a finger and say that deep water drilling should stop. But, once I understood how entwined the economy is with the oil industry and how many residents of the region work in both industries, it crystallized for me the reality that there is no easy solution. That economic dependence on the oil and gas industry, however, is not a license for politicians to look the other way (or worse), nor is it an excuse for the industry to act recklessly.
You’ve got lots of BP in this, more than anything else I’ve seen, including news stories. Was access difficult?
I felt that it was very important to tell a complete and balanced story. One-sided diatribes only serve to preach to the converted. Therefore, we worked very hard throughout the production period to get BP’s point of view in the film. They took a long time — almost six months I believe — before they agreed. In fact, they agreed to be in the film really at the very end of our production window, so they almost did not make it into the film. To their credit, they gave us some pretty good access. Considering I am the guy who made the movie “Crude,” about the 17-year Ecuadorian indigenous struggle to hold Chevron responsible for pollution in the Amazon rain forest, and that during the period we were making “Black Tide” I was still embroiled in a very high profile First Amendment battle with Chevron over the outtakes to “Crude,” I am actually surprised they agreed to be in the film. Therefore, I give them a lot of credit for that. (If you’re unfamiliar with “Crude” and the First Amendment battle, go to www.crudethemovie.com.)
Had you spent much time in the Gulf or in Louisiana before this project?
I have shot during Mardi Gras several times and I filmed shortly after Katrina for other projects, but I have never actually witnessed the Gulf Coast before — places like Bay Jimmy and Grand Isle. I was stunned by the natural beauty, and by the tremendous man-made coastal erosion caused by the oil and gas industry and by the resilience of the people.
How did this project come to you?
Animal Planet liked my film “Crude” and wanted to do something about the Gulf spill. We all decided that focusing on the plight of a cross section of residents and taking a non-partisan presentation of the complexities would provide a unique approach. I also was personally dismayed that the national media kind of packed up and moved on to the next disaster, falsely leaving the impression that everything was back to normal, which clearly it is not. I wanted to move beyond the finger-pointing and put a human face on the tragedy in the hope of inspiring people to do the right thing.
When did you start? When was it wrapped?
We began shooting in July 2010, without having fully committed to the project — taking several shooting/research trips down to the region over the summer to see if we thought we could make a film that added to the story instead of just repeating what had already aired. By the fall, when I realized no one was really telling the story of the long-term impacts and about the economic realities of these two industries being so entwined with the fate of Louisiana did I feel like we could make a worthy two-hour film. I want to credit the producer Jay Heyman and our story producer Sara Enright for really cracking the nut on a lot of these stories.
Did you watch the coverage of the spill, as many did, with a feeling of helplessness? And was that a part of your motivation to do the film?
After having come off of my film “Crude,” in which I witnessed devastating oil pollution in such a delicate and ecologically important environment as the Amazon Rainforest, I was absolutely nauseous when the spill happened and then went on for so long — truly sick to my stomach. I kept thinking, “Gee, I am brushing my teeth and the oil is still gushing.” “Gee, I am having dinner the next week and the oil is still gushing.” I thought about it constantly while it was happening, feeling helpless and angry — angry at our addiction to oil and angry at the response to the spill. Basically I felt not enough was being done and the country was being apathetic to this tragedy. So I naturally felt that what I could do to help was to make a film.
Do you have a favorite sequence? A sequence that was difficult to execute that turned out well? Have you screened the film for any of the participants?
When Dr. Joye tears up about remembering seeing dolphins when the region was healthy brings tears to my eyes as well. We have no right to destroy the environment of the other creatures inhabiting this planet for our own selfish needs. I was also quite disturbed to have seen just how much oil remained in the marshes when I filmed Bay Jimmy in early May of this year with BP, despite the on-going clean up efforts. This spill is clearly a problem that is going to need ongoing attention. A James Carville says in the show, everybody was just a little too quick to pat themselves on the back and say the job of cleanup and restoration is done. We did send DVDs to participants and got back very positive feedback from people.
What are your personal conclusions about the future of the Gulf and the industries highlighted?
I think we are destroying the earth through our addiction to oil and if we really had the collective will and long-term concern about the future of the planet and the next generation, we would get off of oil. I am emailing you my answers from this amazing thing called an iPhone from a film shoot in South Africa. The fact that we have developed these amazing communication devices in the last few years enabling such connectedness tells me that if we put our minds to it and put economic gain aside, we could certainly figure out how to replace a fuel source that is a century old, and the polluting technology of the internal combustion engine. However, as I myself learned, this would wreak economic havoc on many of the individuals living in this vital and precious Gulf region. I personally don’t know how to reconcile those two conflicting needs, but I know we have to.
Dave Walker can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3429