Mixing oil and water

Filmmaker Jon Bowermaster brings his 'SoLa' stories to the Gray's Reef Ocean Film Festival

Petroleum is a $73 billion dollar industry in Louisiana

In southern Louisiana, where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico, pollutants from many generations of farming and industry have pooled and collected into what’s been dubbed the Dead Zone – 8,000 square miles of sludgy, toxic water in which nothing can live.

That’s roughly the size of New Jersey. And, says Jon Bowermaster, it’s literally growing every day.

Of course, the Dead Zone is not the biggest woe facing the people who live on the Gulf Coast right now. When the BP rig Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20 of this year, everything got worse in a hurry.

It was the human relationship with water that drew Bowermaster, an award–winning documentary filmmaker, to Louisiana two years ago.

At this weekend’s Gray’s Reef Ocean Film Festival at the Trustees Theatre, he’ll screen his movie SoLa: Louisiana Water Stories, along with earlier films covering his many sojourns to Antarctica and other parts of the world. After the films, he’ll speak and take questions from the audience.

The Gray’s Reef Ocean Film Festival is a collection of films, both short and feature–length, that document our oceans, their wildlife, and the increasingly fragile ecosystems that exist in those places where water comes together with terra firma.

Where did the idea for the SoLa film come from?

Jon Bowermaster: For the last dozen years or so we – I use the colloquial “we,” because I have a small team that helps me – have been making films around the world, about the relationship between man and water. Focused on a variety of environmental issues ranging from impact of climate change, impact of plastic pollution, impact of overfishing et cetera. And always kind have used adventure as a way to lure people into the story, and then talk to them about these different issues.

And what we found is that people around the world, whether they live on the coast of Gabon, the coast of French Polynesia, the coast of the Aleutian Islands, are experiencing and suffering from all of these same environmental issues.

But we hadn’t made a film in the United States since 1999, and so I thought it would be nice to make one closer to home. I thought Louisiana would be perfect because there’s water everywhere – rivers, creeks, bayous, swamps, the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a culture that’s truly imbued with a relationship with water. And everyone has a water story.

So how did it develop?

Jon Bowermaster: We didn’t know how far we would get. We started talking about the Dead Zone off the coast there. We started looking at some of the petrochemical pollutions that go straight into the Mississippi and out to the sea. We learned a lot about how the Atchafalaya swamp used to protect the southern coast from storms, but now of course it’s been largely clear–cut. We got into the issue of coastal erosion, and the impact of oil and gas exploration on the coastline.

 I didn’t want to do a completely negative look. I never do. The thing about South Louisiana that’s so special and unique is this incredible, one–of–a–kind culture. It’s fantastic. It really is like going to another country.

The day we arrived in July 2008, there was a horrific barge collision of the Mississippi, and 400,000 gallons of oil was spilled into the river, which is used as New Orleans’ drinking water. That was the day we arrived – and it just went downhill from there.

You were essentially done with the film when?

Jon Bowermaster: By April of this year we had a pretty nice piece assembled that showed both the environmental concerns, but also the culture.

Then the BP gusher started gushing, and I thought well, we have to include it. So we went back down and re–interviewed everybody that we’d met. Changed the order of the film around, added a new coda about the spill and took out, I have to say, some of the “lighter” parts. Because all of a sudden that stuff felt very trivial in comparison to what was going on on the ocean.

Couldn’t you have made an entirely different film at that point?

Jon Bowermaster: We could have made a “spill film.” But one of the nice things about SoLa now is that it shows a way of life or an attitude that in some respects doesn’t exist any longer.

There’s some fishermen in the show who talk – this is before the spill – about their big concerns being the Dead Zone, international competition, the high price of fuel et cetera. And all of a sudden that stuff pales, when you think that their fishing grounds may be horribly polluted for a while.

When you watch the film, there clearly is this drumbeat throughout that shows how a spill of this magnitude was able to happen. Spills, in Louisiana, have always been treated as business as usual.

It’s a $72 billion a year gas and oil industry. Every time you fly over a rig in the Gulf, there’s always a boom around it. It’s part of doing business. They leak. You have big, leaky machinery operating out there.

But obviously no one anticipated anything this enormous.

How close to finished was the film when the BP spill occurred?

Jon Bowermaster: We were 10 seconds away from finishing it. But if we’d finished it as it was, without mentioning the spill, then the whole film would have been antiquated the first time you showed it. It would have been old news. Or history.

You mentioned how you use adventure as a calling card. With all the negative environmental impact you observe, all over the world, does it all still seem like a great adventure to you?

Jon Bowermaster: I choose to be optimistic. Otherwise you’d be jumping off bridges. Especially when it comes to ocean and coastal issues, because we have forever treated the ocean like a toilet bowl.

We just figure everything goes in there, out of sight, out of mind. But now of course it’s starting to wash back, and we’re realizing “Ooh, it didn’t really disappear, did it?”

Gray’s Reef Ocean Film Festival

Where: Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.

Admission: Free

Online: graysreef.noaa.gov


Friday, Sept. 17

An Evening With National Geographic: 7–9:30 p.m.: Explore National Marine Sanctuaries, Breathe, Don’t Release a Pest, National Geographic Film 1 (TBA), National Geographic Film 2 (TBA).

Saturday, Sept. 18

9–10:20 a.m.: “Sea–side Saturday”: Gimme A Hug, Students Saving the Ocean, A Bridge to Puerto Rico, A Year Traveling in Indonesia in Four Minutes and other short films.

10:30 a.m.–1:50 p.m.: “On the Edge of the Shore”: Waterlife, Witness to Hiroshima and People of the Seal.

2:30–3:35 p.m.: “What’s Down There, Anyway”: Observing The Water Planet, Cold As Ice, What’s Down There? and Watercolours.

3:45–5:30 p.m.: “Warnings From Sea and Shore”: Lethal Sounds, Acid Test, Between the Tides and What Would Darwin Think?: Man versus the Galapagos (a Jon Bowermaster film).

7–9:30 p.m: “An Evening with Jon Bowermaster”: Dive into Our National Marine Sanctuaries, SoLa: Louisiana Water Stories, Skimming the Surface (a film by two recent SCAD graduates), The Fix and Terra Antarctica.

Sunday, Sept. 19

10–11: 15 a.m.: “Shipwrecks!”: Wooden Bones: The Sunken Fleet of 1758 and Lost on a Reef.

11:30 a.m.–12:51 p.m.: “Around Our Region”: Keeping the May River Wild, Farming the Seas: Shrimp & Oysters, Wakulla Springs, A Watery Treasure and The Gulf Islands: Mississippi’s Wilderness Shore.

1:30–3:50 p.m.: “Friends in Need”: Home for Hawksbill, Arctic Cliff Hangers and Lost Year: A Sea Turtle Odyssey.

4:30–6:30 p.m.: “Warnings from Sea and Shore II”: The End of The Line, The Ocean World Trashed and To Save A Whale.

7–9 p.m.: “Emerging Filmmakers: Hope for the Future”: Explore National Marine Sanctuaries and Breathe. Plus student films.


Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.
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