From the shores of Louisiana: Exploring the culture of the oil spill

Breaux Bridge, Louisiana — I’ve been coming to the Gulf coast of Louisiana every few months since July 2008, making a film about the relationship between man and the water in a place where everywhere you look there is glimpse of a river, creek, bayou, basin, swamp, the Gulf or the Mississippi River. Coincidentally, in light of recent events, one of the first things we filmed upon arrival 23 months ago was an oil spill. At the time when an oil tanker t-boned a barge in the middle of the Mississippi River at midnight on July 28 it seemed catastrophic. Now I know that it was in part business as usual.

That 400,000-gallon spill, in the heart of New Orleans’ drinking water source, quickly coated both banks of the river for 80 miles, all the way to the Gulf. We filmed crews in white hazmat suits power-washing oil off the rocks in New Orleans from the tourist promenade lining the river. In an interview with the Department of Environmental Quality official in charge of the state’s waterways he admitted without hesitation that “this kind of thing happens often in Louisiana, given the massive oil and gas industry that controls things here.”

In the months since we have traveled with, interviewed and filmed a half-dozen of Louisiana’s crème-de-la-crème of environmental activists and environmental ills. My original intent was to try and understand and explain the Dead Zone that grows off the mouth of the Mississippi every summer thanks to fertilizers washed down it from 31 northern states. But one interesting character led to another, one mess to another, and we just kept coming back.

My introduction to Louisiana was fifteen years ago when I came down from my home in the Hudson Valley of New York to write for Audubon magazine about a Dow Chemical plant’s pollution of local aquifers in Plaquemine; I visited a different Plaquemine (this is a Parish) last weekend,, which is ground zero for the current spill, its marshes and wetlands in line to be the first to receive oil from the Deepwater spill, most likely this weekend.

In mid-April we were putting the finishing touches on our film – “SoLa, Louisiana Water Stories” – when I heard the first reports of an explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the next few days I watched in horror, since I was now armed with an insider’s knowledge of just how disastrous the spill could be for the ocean, Louisiana’s coastline and its peoples.

A week ago I returned to southern Louisiana, with video cameras, to re-interview many of the people in our film, to capture their reactions to the still spilling leak. It’s been an emotional past 24 days for each of them; they are truly on the frontlines of trying to assess, clean up and press those accountable. By the time I hooked up with them in the past few days they were already exhausted from a couple weeks of 20 hour days, ranging in efforts to coordinate flyovers for journalists and scientists, finding contributions of protective gear for fishermen enlisted by BP to help clean up, writing press releases, working closely with lawyers suing to make sure fishermen’s lives and rights were being protected and participating in press conferences from the two command centers set up mid-state (in Houma and Roberts).

Ours was never intended to be a film about hurricanes or storms, though their impact will soon be felt in a brand new way as the coming season threatens to carry all that still-floating oil even deeper into Louisiana’s heart. Its intent is not to romanticize fishermen or Cajuns (or their music!). It’s not to turn hard-working environmentalists into heroes and heroines or lying politicians (of which there seem to be an over-abundance in this southland) into even bigger scum than they are.

..the goal all along has simply been to show the complex and connected way of life that links this entire southern coast. Anywhere you turn in Louisiana, there’s water. And everyone in Louisiana has a water story

Rather the goal all along has simply been to show the complex and connected way of life that links this entire southern coast. Anywhere you turn in Louisiana, there’s water. And everyone in Louisiana has a water story … or two, or three. We have filmed in some of the most beautiful corners of the state, from the Atchafalaya swamp — filled with more wildlife than any place in the U.S. to the Gulf off Grand Isle. We’ve also documented some of the region’s most horrific environmental problems including but not limited to oil spills, the Dead Zone, petrochemical plant pollution of air and sky, the cutting down of its natural barrier (the cypress forests), the incredible detritus left behind by the oil and gas companies when they move on and the corruption in government that has for decades led to Louisiana far too often being compared to “America’s toilet bowl.”

In the past dozen years I’ve made as many documentaries; this is the first in the U.S. since 1999. Now that I know Louisiana better, I understand why I was so attracted to the place. Every time I get off the plane in Lafayette I feel like I’ve arrived in some exotic international port. The language is different here; so are the food, the music, and the dance. (I love that everyone here calls me ‘baby,’ from waitresses to grocery store checkout girls, which I initially thought was a true endearment but now realize it’s a comfortable colloquialism.) I’d never been to a Zydeco breakfast before, for example, nor had a lesson in crawfish eating (“pinch their tails, suck their heads”). Now I’m hooked; I can understand why the great documentarian Les Blank made a half-dozen films here forty years ago. It is a rich place for life, for stories, for nature. It’s tragic that it has also become synonymous with disasters, primarily man-made.

Over the next couple weeks I hope my Dispatches from Southern Louisiana will introduce you to some of the powerful conservationist’s voices in the country, all of whom proudly call Cajun country home.

Meanwhile, check out my documentary on SoLA over at