World events and current affairs invariably inspire cultural commentary, in terms of both entertainment and factual responses, and it is no exaggeration to speculate that if an event, or an idea is worthy of note for documentary filmmakers and straight literary commentators, it will inevitably already have been considered by someone in Hollywood as a potential money-spinner. Just look at how quickly the Kill Bin Laden project was confirmed after the death of arguably the most wanted man in Western history. Recent years have seen the blurring of the distinction between serious exposes and their Hollywood counterparts, as filmmakers like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock have used more commercial arenas to promote their messages, and we can now talk about documentaries in terms of their box office appeal and potential bankability.
Add to that the fact that revolution is hot right now, with notable uprisings taking up slots in the news almost every day, and you could suggest that this is the perfect time to be making and releasing anything that successfully blends a compelling story with a spirit of dissent. Into this context, filmmaking spouses and activists Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell have made The Big Fix (sometimes known as Spill), a documentary charting the continued after-effects and alleged cover-up of the Deepwater Horizons oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which screened this afternoon as a Special Screening in Cannes.
The film is essentially a call to revolutionary arms, using a microcosmic portrait of the Deepwater disaster as a spring-board for a broader activist message, and even more specifically as an allegory for how “the system” mistreats its charges. Ultimately that message is slightly undone by the hyperbole of the finale of the documentary which explicitly calls viewers to take their future in their own hands (a sentiment that actually inspired laughter in the screening), but it is a compelling enough subject to make this film an important, and crucially entertaining endeavor all the same. More importantly it will inspire people to return to the facts of the disaster, and stop it from becoming yesterday’s news when it still has devastating everyday effects on the people and eco-systems of the surrounding areas.
Personally, I am not a revolutionist, and to use this article to give you my opinion on matters would be far too self-serving, and downright unprofessional, so I’ll stick to reviewing the films on the traditional qualifiers of good documentary filmmaking. In terms of structure, the filmmakers have done well to intersperse cold hard fact with intellectual commentary and also the accounts and opinions of real-life Louisiana residents, adding an enormously touching hook to the film that cannot be achieved by trooping out famous faces and professionals (take note Keith Allen). It also helps that the residents chosen are enormously engaging characters, idiosyncratic and endearing to the extreme, and more than willing to show the scars of their ordeals for everyone to see – they are presented as victims yes, but not ones who are willing to lie down anymore, and in avoiding a bleeding-heart presentation of these real people, the film achieves exactly what is intended in using them. Empathy is the biggest reward for a documentary like this.
The film is composed very well, and despite being a little long at 1 hour 49 minutes, the split into discernible chapters helps with the flow and allows the filmmakers to keep the audience’s attention. Revelation follows revelation, which can sometimes have a rather off-putting cumulative effect, but it is all done in such a way that every punch lands a precise blow. Crucially, Tickell and Harrell (whose personal penalty for making the film cuts a poignant, and almost tragic note) are good filmmakers, and everything from the soundtrack choices to the framing of shots adds authority and engagement to their film. Add to that the appearance of notable faces like Peter Fonda, Jason Mraz and Amy Smart, and it is clear that they are cleverly in-touch with the idea that nothing sells a message like fame.
The Big Fix certainly has the advantage of a charismatic figure-head: Joshua Tickell is as charming and as relatable as Spurlock, and he has the infinitely valuable ability to engage the audience with his message, even despite the tendency all filmmakers with an agenda have to lean towards impartiality, which makes him sort of like Michael Moore, except without the smug sense of self-importance that famous cap-wearer occasionally lets slip. And he certainly does have an agenda: Tickell is an alternative fuels campaigner, and a self-proclaimed “Greeny,” and it is obvious that his filmmaking is designed precisely to inspire debate and presumably dissent in its audiences, with a long-term strategy to Get Things Done, so in that respect we can forgive the fact that the film flirts with impartiality. It is a politicized film, and to berate it for wearing its colors on its sleeve is somewhat redundant.
But that flirting with impartiality could still have been achieved with slightly more grace. Tickell and Harrell do introduce commentators who take an alternative stance to them, usually espousing the message that the disaster is over (or at least far more contained than the film’s evidence might suggest), but in every case, they are outed as impartial themselves, as having some vested interest in the populace believing that line of thought. At no point are we introduced to irrefutably impartial parties who take that counter-position, which does little apart from present a (surely false) picture that everyone who believes the crisis is over is in some way morally repugnant, which in turn opens the film’s impartiality and credence to further scrutiny, especially given how quick the directors are to denounce the “bad guys.”
In the final evaluation, if a film is powerful enough and engaging enough to inspire empathy, it is surely doing something right, and I left The Big Fix not necessarily bristling with moral outrage, but certainly invested with a new sense of responsibility. In purely technical terms, that has to go down as a victory for the film, and while I will still resist any urge to use this review as an emphatic call to tackle the system on the film’s charges – especially considering the film’s obviously impartial position – I can say that it would be a worthwhile experience to go and watch it yourself.
The Upside: The Big Fix is enormously engaging, thanks to some technically astute filmmaking and some very clever creative decisions, and it still feels very important, which is invaluable to its cause.
The Downside: Despite its best interests, the agenda is a little too plainly obvious, and there isn’t a great deal of balance to proceedings.
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Cannes coverage continues…