Sunday, February 17, 2013

Is Bryan D. Hopkins' DIRTY ENERGY the most important documentary of the year?

Could be. In any case, it's a must-see. For several reasons. First, it will open your eyes as to why, at some point after BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, you and I and most everyone we know imagined that this horrendous man-made environmental disaster was pretty well cleaned up. After all, the photos we were seeing of the gulf looked surprisingly free of oil. And where were all those other photographs of dead birds, fish and what have you that we usually see in the media after these spills? Gee: not there.

See DIRTY ENERGY--The Deepwater Horizon Disaster: firsthand stories from the Louisiana Bayou and you'll understand why -- along with a lot of other disturbing answers to questions asked by the folk who live in (and earn their living from) the Louisiana Bayou area most affected by the oil spill. Directed and co-edited, -shot and -produced by filmmaker Bryan D. Hopkins (shown at right), the documentary puts us up-close and personal with some of the people who suffered most from the spill, and then connects the dots to help us understand what happened afterward, who was responsible and what the results have been.

As the residents and workers in the area make clear, even Hurricane Katrina was not as long-term devastating as the BP oil spill. "It's the first time we've had to depend on someone else to clean up the mess," notes one. And, as we see, they didn't really clean it up; instead they used toxic dispersants to help cover it up.

More shocking and depressing appears to be our own government's use of the U.S. Coast Guard to act as a kind of "security" for BP, running interference for the behemoth company, as it takes over the coastal area, completely controlling the "clean-up" operation, not allowing the use of cameras to record the operations and then spraying the toxic dispersants at night so that the following day, when the clean-up crews arrive to remove the oil, that oil appears to have disappeared. BP would not even allow clean-up crews (above) to wear protective respiratory suits. (Why -- because it would create a bad PR image for the company?)

Among the several important connections the movie makes, thanks to one of its most impressive narrators -- Dr. Riki Ott, Ph.D., marine biologist, educator and activist (shown at left) -- is between this latest BP-caused oil spill and the Exxon Valdex spill in Alaska in 1989. Both spills pitted locals against a major corporation and both appear to be having the same results: sleazy practices by both corporations ensure that help to the businesses and people most affected by the spills will either not come -- or will arrive as a tiny percentage of what was originally promised. The movie also addresses the despicable attempts -- and success -- of BP's "divide-and-conquer" campaign so that citizens end up fighting each other rather than the joining against the corporate cause of their troubles.

BP evidently learned from the "mistakes" that happened to Exxon earlier -- not how to prevent a spill (above), of course, but what kind of actions were needed to head off bad publicity afterward. The movie is more or less divided into segments that cover the spill, the "clean-up," health issues, corporate negligence, government failures, and how the communities involved are fighting back. The narrators here provide a good mix of science, history, activism and on-the-spot, anecdotal evidence.

What we see and hear -- as ex-local and commercial seafood buyer Karen Mayer Hopkins (at right) as community organizer Kindra Arnesen (below, left) point out -- addresses the current and growing bond in America between government and corporate power to the exclusion of the rights of citizens, resulting in the crazy idea that BP is somehow more important than the working people we see before us, not to mention the very environment that
provides our home and food. (We are told that the Gulf of Mexico in which the spill took place provides around one-third of the seafood consumed in the U.S., some of which is now -- and for how many decades hence? -- diseased and probably unfit for consumption.)

The people we see and hear do not rant and scream at us; they are mostly just quietly angry and disappointed in our government. But the movie should make viewers extremely angry. Dirty Energy is one of the most anger-making of documentaries because it gets to the heart of what is going on between government and corporate power and money -- and then shows you what this is doing to working folk from a viewpoint that you will find very difficult not to share.  

At one point local fisherman George Barisich (at right) questions why the Coast Guard was allowed to do BP's bidding. "Maybe someday we'll find out," he muses. Well, why not now? Follow the money: the contributions BP and its connections have made to the Obama campaign. Yet, even when this rather blatant trail is dug up and made clear, Americans seem still not to understand nor care what is going on. We don't believe it. Or we don't want to believe it. This is the land of the free, after all.

Normally, I am so pressed for time, with so many further films to cover that I can't view any of the usual "extras" that appear on most DVDs. This time, I simply had to watch them, and they proved more than worthwhile. In addition to the trailer for the documentary, look for a 19-minute Three years after the spill short that gives you an update on the people and events in the Bayou area, plus a six-minute In-Depth looks at Gulf Shrimp that should put you off seafood for a long while.

Why wasn't a movie this powerful released in theaters? You know the answer already. Though it has been shown at various film fests, where it won a couple of prizes, it is now going straight to DVD, thanks to Cinema Libre Studio. With a running time of just 94 minutes (but don't forget those "Special Features"), this is a couple of hours very well spent.

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