HOW THE BIG FIX WAS FIXED (2012)
The Big Fix opens with the poignant observation that Louisiana is not a state; it is a colony of Big Oil. For over a century, Louisiana, an oil-rich territory, has been raped and pillaged and looted for its natural resources. Nothing is safe from the avarice of multinational corporations, not the land, which is a pincushion for oil derricks, not the sea, which is peppered with oil rigs.
Those natural resources include the Gulf of Mexico, which supports a huge fishing “industry”—a dangerous oxymoron if there ever was one. Louisiana provides one third of the nation’s seafood and, after the oil companies, fishing is the second source of employment in the state/colony. The third employer is the tourist industry. Fishing and tourism depend upon good weather and upon a natural environment that is pristine and respected. But the oil industry cares nothing about nature or human beings. The coexistence of fishing and tourism and oil depends entirely upon luck…and the competency of the oil companies and their commitment to public safety…which is to say, the citizens of Louisiana are gambling.
When that luck runs out, nature ultimately loses. Overfishing can force fisher folk to pull up their nets; tourists can carelessly toss their trash and deface scenic beauty, but oil is inherently poisonous and dangerous. Only oil can destroy nature, probably permanently. On April 20, 2010, ironically on Earth Day, an oil rig, rented by the oil giant BP from Transocean, exploded, killing eleven workers. The resulting oil gush of oil, unchecked for three months, destroyed the fishing community, polluted the Gulf of Mexico, and contaminated the local seafood. But not to worry. The pirates and parasites, also known as the corporate colonizers, were also the masters of the Big Fix, also known as the Big Payoff.
Everyone’s palm was greased, everyone grabbed at the cash, everyone took the silence money and everyone agreed to be paid off. The punch line of this sad tale of a Lost Colony is that the colonists really do not want to be fixed. The inhabitants of the oil territory demand more drilling and the fisher folk are willing to distribute poisoned fish and shrimp to unsuspecting Americans.
Profit for the corporate colonizers and financial survival for the colonists trumps any moral or ethical concern for innocent fish, fowl, dolphins, wildlife and people. The Big Fix was result was a complete lack of values of any kind on the part of all the participants and the protests of the righteous victims of the oil spill were drowned out and the world moved on. By any standards what happened in the Gulf of Mexico on Earth Day was an American Tragedy.
A tragedy is like a crisis, and in the case of the BP oil spill, crisis and tragedy came together. Like a crisis, a tragedy is a long time in the making and lies in wait and eventually all the parts come together in a sort of cosmic inevitability. Like a junkie on heroin, for a hundred years, Louisiana has been dependent upon oil. Only Huey Long understood that the oil companies are also dependent upon the state and demanded that they pay the residents for the resources that bring so much profit. The Big Fix pointed out that Huey Long was assassinated in 1935. To this day this murder has never been solved. His death ended whatever resistance could be mustered against Big Oil and the state simply swooned into the arms of the oil companies.
In return for the privilege of raping Louisiana and sucking it dry of oil, these corporations offered blue-collar jobs to the workers while paying off the state government and the elected politicians to leave them alone and the federal government to not regulate them. The people of Louisiana passively accepted their oppressed condition and that generational passivity is part of their tragedy. But the explosion on April 20th awakened them to their own situation and the citizens of the Gulf demanded some kind of compensation.
Filmmakers, Rebecca and Josh Tickell, enter this theater of venality and victimization with the innocent aplomb of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: they are small players in a larger drama; they are witnesses who, unlike Shakespeare’s’ bit players, live to tell their tale but the story literally makes them sick. As the creators of Fuel, 2008, this husband-and-wife documentary team were the likely candidates who could expose the duplicity of government and corporations. As efforts on the part of federal and state government progressed throughout the summer to cover-up the exposed incompetence and irresponsibility of an oil company, BP (British Petroleum or Beyond Petroleum, as they like to be called), the Tickells went to Louisiana to find the truth. They headed South, leaving Los Angeles behind, and brought Peter Fonda with them. (Fonda, along with Tim Robbins was one of the executive producers.) After making some public feel-good appearances and doing his well-meaning star turn, Fonda went home and the real work of the Tickells could begin. The Big Fix, which will appear in theaters in limited release in June of 2012, is the result of their quest to document the aftermath.
Like fellow documentarian, Michael Moore, the Tickells are actors in their own documentary and they rest their case on the investigative reports of the Obama administration of the Gulf Oil Spill. Indeed most of the facts presented in the film are in the public domain and are well known. What is remarkable about the events of the summer of 2010 is that the whole world was watching—-literally viewing the oil pumping out of a ruptured underground pipe—and yet there was a determined attempt on the part of the oil company to silence the effected community and to impose a black out on its ongoing attempts at a highly toxic cleanup. We, of the television audience, watched as the community was paid off with a “settlement” that remains to this day an abstract sum of money out of reach of the victims. Once you become a claimant, you become a “defendant” and must prove that you deserve it. Once it offers a settlement, the oil company is back in command. The movie pointed out that BP has paid only one claim.
One would expect that the oil company would want the public to watch their penance and their amends to the Gulf but, after a few months of being televised, BP began to work at night under the cover of darkness. The Tickells could only challenge the BP guards but they could not take their cameras into the beaches being cleaned. Careful to film only on public land, they could document the daytime activities of BP. Under the quiet lens of the camera, the corporation deliberately plowed the oil and tar balls under the white sand in full view of the people sunbathing and swimming in the Gulf. The Tickells reported that the swimmers were coming out of the Gulf waves covered in a itchy rash. Some of the inhabitants suffered from boils and welts and open sores from the toxins used to “absorb” the oil.
BP is not so much cleaning up the oil spill as hiding it. The term “cleanup” is misleading for BP is not so much “cleaning” the water and land of the leaked oil as relocating the oil. The relocation is possible only if the oil is reconstituted into heavy nodules, which sink to the bottom of the ocean. Once so dispersed, the measurable amount of oil spilled is reduced and so too is the amount of restitution paid by BP.
The problem is not just the fact that BP is cheating, not just that huge lakes of submerged oil wallow at the bottom of the Gulf, not just that the poisonous brew could very well kill the body of water, it is also that the agent used to change the oil is extremely toxic. The cute name of the so-called anti-toxin is “Corexit,” an invention of Exxon and the company developed it to “correct” the spill of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska. According to experts who testify in the film, Corexit mixed with oil produces an artificial element that is far more toxic than the original oil. Given that the federal government is in the clutches of the oil companies, the mere fact that the EPA (funded by the oil companies) politely protested over the use of Corexit was nothing short of amazing. BP of course responded to the admonishment by “correcting” at night, spewing the white fumes from silent crop duster airplanes to squelch the oil plumes.
The toxins hover invisibly in the air, float lazily in the water, and seep into the seafood like a slow poison. Although the Tickells went to no more risk than that experienced by those who lived adjacent to the impact zone of the spill, they ultimately suffered physically from their investigation of the cover-up. The permanent damage to Rebecca Tickell’s health, after only one day’s exposure to the toxicity of the BP “cleanup,”can be the measure of the extent of the sufferings of the past two years and the future pain for the Gulf residents. Ultimately, like the many victims of the greed of a large and well-protected corporation, the couple must take care of themselves. But other victims are simply helpless. Dolphins gave expelled stillborn babies, which drifted in the poisoned waters and washed up on the shores. The herons and cranes and pelicans may look clean and fresh, but probe inside the fish and shrimp and the oil they have ingested lies black against the white flesh.
The fish with the dark insides are a metaphor for the dark heart of corruption that stains the colonized state. The state university climbed in bed with the corporation whose activities bordered on the criminal and accepted millions of dollars in “donations.” In return all the local scientists had to do was to spout the company line. The cleanup, Corexit, would eat up the oil in the proper biological fashion. The fish that we are asked to eat is safe because it passes the “smell test.” The state hired a herd of “sniffers” who apparently have various levels of smell aptitude to smell fish. Of course smelling the outside of a shrimp tells the sniffer nothing of the interior state of the shrimp. Watching a chirpy, cheerful woman in a bright patriotic red suit describing the process, I thought that she was mocking the very idea but later I learned that she was dead serious; she was selling the efficacy of “the smell test.
For BP, the “big fix” for a tragedy was a public relations campaign that compromised all those involved. During a photo op, Obama and Sasha swam in the Gulf to advertise the cleanliness of the Louisiana beaches. What the public did not know was that the father and daughter were swimming in a protected and unaffected bay.
In the end the Tickells looked like Diogenes with his lamp searching for an honest man. The university was compromised; its experts are not to be believed. The governments, both state and federal, wanted to appease BP as urgently as the oil company needed to turn off the spigot. The so-called “little people” rushed to take jobs and seize the bribes offered by BP and allowed their silence to be purchased for a very few dollars. The innocent could protest and complain but there was no public will to help them gain justice. As in the aftermath of Katrina, the attention of the public moved on.
Although the Big Spill was two years ago, the use social media and its various technologies has exploded and the Tickells are the kind of savvy filmmakers who rely on the public to publicize social problems. Today society communicates through an informal citizens network operating through Facebook and Twitter and e-mail and Internet postings (such as this review). This is how change can take place. Social change is moved because of the public’s perception of a fundamental injustice. The American public has little stake in the corporate economy and views big businesses with suspicion. Increasingly disenfranchised by corporate “contributions” to elections, sophisticated enough to know that politicians are purchased and laws are bought and paid for, the public trusts blogs more than ballots, public activists more than the government.
The Big Fix reveals how the system works, or to put it in another way, The Big Fix lays out in an easy to understand package how the fix worked. The Tickells explain to us, the citizens of this nation, what happened to Louisiana while we all watched and wondered but did nothing.
The couple appeared at a small local showing at the Otis College of Art and Design on April 19 and engaged in a genial question and answer session with the students and faculty. They urged the audience to not buy seafood because we will not be correctly told whether or not it comes from the Gulf. They told us to simply not buy the products of Big Oil: use public transportation, ride bikes, car pool, walk—all alien concepts in Los Angeles. But the purpose of the Tickells in coming to Otis was to remind the students that, as artists of the new generation, they are potentially very powerful actors. Bad outcomes can be changed only by the power of social media putting public pressure upon politicians. Although the Tickells did not mention it, the case of Trayvon Martin comes to mind as an example of what happens when the public will demand justice.
Time ran out and the hour was late and I did not get a chance to ask the couple my question. As I sat in the college auditorium as part of a small select group watching The Big Fix and viewed the parade of “fixers” go by, nodding their talking heads and lying, I wondered what kind of people are these? University professors betraying public trust, experts misleading the people, bland-faced corporate executives, double-talking politicians—who are they? Are they genuinely delusional? Are they sociopaths? Josh Tickell recounted how he had a “lucid dream” of showing Obama all the facts of the Big Fix and stated that the President was stunned that he did not know the truth until Tickell told him what had really happened. Rebecca Tickell stated that the representatives of BP were nice people with families. I though that this charming and optimistic couple doth protest too much. I wondered if these excellent and talented people were not projecting their own inherently moral qualities upon those who do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. No these corporate people cannot be “nice.” Cheating innocent victims, refusing to pay those whom you wrong—-the perpetrators may smile but they are not ethical or honorable and they have no right to look their children in the eye.
The night I saw the film, I also read an article by Richard Cohen in The Washington Post. Written on April 16, the column was discussing a current political candidate for high office who has a career in business. Noting this candidate’s uncanny ability to lie at will, Cohen explained, “…what his career has given him is the businessman’s concept of self — that what he does is not who he is.” This is what is called compartmentalization. You can do foul deeds, you can lie and cheat and steal as the oil companies do; you can lie with impunity and go home to your children and to your mate and sleep well at night. It is not you who has done the illegal and immoral things; it is the corporation. You are only following orders.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger