In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil disaster, this documentary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill takes on new meaning. The legal battle between the town of Cordova, Alaska, and the world's most powerful oil company, Exxon-Mobil, has dragged out for nearly twenty years. There have been many casualties along the way, including suicides, divorces, and bankruptcies. In addition to the human toll, entire species have been decimated, and the oil can still be found on the beaches. The sheer beauty of Alaska, which has suffered so much from this gigantic oil spill, coupled with the heartfelt stories of the survivors, is portrayed in the film and is painful for an empathetic person to watch.
I first viewed Black Wave with Summer Burkes on her laptop computer, interspersed with multiple interruptions and exclamations from this courageous woman who has been sprayed with Corexit in the Gulf, who tried to deploy hair booms to save some of the local ecology, and who has listened to the same rhetoric from BP that Exxon used when they spoke to the people in Cordova. The pattern, the lies, and the cover-up were obvious in both cases, and the deeper questions about both incidents have never been resolved.
The gorgeous cinematography, stirring music, and power of the narrative ease the heartache that comes from visually witnessing such an enormous, man-made, preventable disaster. Although the film has won many awards internationally, it has not received the attention that it deserves here in the United States, perhaps because it was made in Canada. It is especially deserving of attention now in the United States when people are getting sick and dying while the government and the mainstream media desperately try to convince the public that the seafood and beaches in the Gulf of Mexico are safe.
The heroine of Black Wave is Riki Ott, Ph.D., "fisherma'am" and author, who has a degree in marine toxicology with a specialty in oil pollution. The film itself is like the tip of an iceberg; there are many more stories and layers beneath the surface. Fortunately, Dr. Riki Ott has provided access to many of these stories in her three books Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Not One Drop: Promises, Betrayal, and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (Chelsea Green, 2008), and Alaska's Copper River Delta, books she has written as part of her process of healing herself, her community, her country and the world.
In her latest book, Not One Drop: Promises, Betrayal, and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, she focuses on the trauma that the entire community went through and the lessons they learned, many of which were inspired by outsiders who entered the community in order to study and understand it, including filmmakers. She describes how the townspeople responded on the seventeenth anniversary of the spill to the documentary The Day the Water Died, which triggered an outpouring of personal stories, tears and songs and the realization that their story was far from over. Endless Fallout, produced by the same filmmakers who made Black Wave, explored the lingering human cost of three of the worst technological disasters of the last century: Union Carbide's chemical accident in Bhopal, India, the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, Ukraine, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Riki saw that while the disasters looked different from the outside, they looked very similar from the inside of the communities that were most affected.
I first learned about the existence of the film Black Wave: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez by visiting Dr. Ott's extensive website. Drawing upon her experience with the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Dr. Ott has spent many months in the Gulf of Mexico in an attempt to educate the public and the medical profession about the toxic effects of crude oil and dispersants and how they can be recognized and measured. Listening to her online interviews soon persuaded me to overcome my reluctance and to examine the depth, magnitude, cause and consequences of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Images, words, and music can either evoke or mask emotions and realities that may be close and personal, or distant, but are staggeringly important to our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world we live in. Natural disasters, although they can be horrifically devastating, often bring people together to mend and heal themselves and whatever was destroyed. In man-made disasters, distrust and uncertainty often divide people and rip them apart. There are so many lessons to be learned from the film Black Wave and from Dr. Riki Ott that are essential if we are to understand and mitigate the damage (rather than compound it), from the more recent oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and to rein in corporations and industries that place profit before life.
Corporations have the money and power to repeat bold lies over and over, endlessly, until they are believed by the majority of the people. It is only the courage and persistence of truth tellers like Riki Ott, as well as the civic engagement and participation of other well-intentioned people, which can create the power to separate corporations from the state and to reassert human control over corporate tyranny.
(Oilpocalypse Now, a benefit for the Gulf Coast Fund, Ultimate Civics, and the Coastal Heritage Society of Louisiana, will include the East Bay premiere of Black Wave and feature guest speaker, Dr. Riki Ott, Thursday, February 10, 2011, at the Grand Lake Theater, 3200 Grand Avenue, Oakland, 7 pm. Dr. Riki Ott will also be a guest on the Community Currency show on Progressive Radio Network, Thursday, January 27, 2011, from 2 pm to 3 pm, all shows are archived online.)