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Cannes 2011: With documentary on BP oil spill, a festival tries to dig in

May 18, 2011 |  5:30 am



The Cannes Film Festival isn't known for its documentaries. But once in a while, a filmmaker takes on a current event in a way that gets the crowd buzzing. That happened in 2004 when Michael Moore came in with "Fahrenheit 9/11" and walked out with a Palme d'Or. And it happened last year when Charles Ferguson premiered his "Inside Job" to festival-goers on the Croisette; amid the glitz and opulence, everyone was talking about the perils of greed.

On Tuesday night, the festival tried the trick again by showing Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell's documentary about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. There would seem to be a promising cinematic story in the tale of a big corporation acting in dubious moral and legal ways, possibly with the help of the U.S. government, leading to a catastrophe.

The backstory on the spill was a good primer for those who have forgotten the cataclysmic events of that spring. And it was noteworthy to see Peter Fonda pop up; the actor-activist executive produced the film and made a small appearance. But any Fergusonian ambitions were soon extinguished. The crowd squirmed restlessly as the film moved from facts about the spill to topics as tenuously connected as the recent revolution in Egypt and the Japanese nuclear disaster, all while asserting some vague conspiracy between government and corporate activities. The filmmakers are activists in the realm of alternative energy (Tickell previously helmed the doc "Fuel"), and they go from showing the working-man victims in the gulf to talking-head voices of outrage who say things like, "The power system won't save us from corporate forces that kill us."

The you-can-make-a-difference activism is present in Moore's films too, of course, but usually after he has entertainingly worked the crowd into a lather, something that, judging by the audience's reaction here, the filmmakers don't do.

There may yet, however, be a filmic story to tell about the spill -- "Twilight" studio Summit is currently developing one, based on a dramatizing of the hours leading up to the spill.


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-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo. "The Big Fix." Credit: Cannes Film Festival