On April 20, 2010, an explosion ripped through an oil rig hundreds of miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. The fiery blast on the Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers and, two days later, caused the rig to collapse, leaving a ragged pipe thousands of feet below the surface gushing oil for five months.
It was the largest offshore oil disaster in American history, with still unfolding impacts on the water, the marshes and the fisheries. And over the past four years, an unlikely team from New Orleans, made up of an award-winning journalist, David Winkler-Schmit, and a fledging director, Alan Robert Davis, decided to take a look at the cultural impact of the disaster on Louisiana’s most famous ethnic group — the Cajuns.
Their new documentary, “Oil & Water,” which will screen at the Joy Theater Oct. 19 at 8:45 p.m., examines what the often fishing-dependent Cajun culture makes of the oil industry in the wake of the disaster.
“Keep in mind the oil industry has been there since the 1930s and it revolutionized (Cajun) culture,” Winkler-Schmit said. “Suddenly you go from subsistence, (where) you have families with 15-16 kids, you get maybe a third-grade education, you fish nine months out of the year and then you take the whole family to move into a shack to do trapping for three months out of the year.
“But now, dad’s got a steady paycheck, kids can go to high school, college and the roads are paved.”
Some might be surprised by what Davis and Winkler-Schmit found in Cajun country. They focused on one family, the Terrebonnes, whose livelihood is invested in the seafood they can bring back and sell at their store.
The film follows several generations of Terrebonnes as they struggle to balance their culture and their livelihood. The oldest of the family runs the store and the business, while the youngest is the first to attend college.
The tumultuous period after the oil disaster becomes heartbreaking, as at one point the patriarch of the family tears up thinking of his grandson’s offer to work for free.
“Everything was kind of constantly changing,” Davis said. “One month, they thought they were about to close their doors and they weren’t getting money from (rig operator) BP. The next month the shrimpers were fishing again and the money was rolling in a little bit better, and ultimately they did stay open through the duration.”
The documentary takes on a huge number of issues: Acadian culture, history, economy and how it intertwines with the oil industry’s emergence in the region.
To slog through the information, Davis and Winkler-Schmit enlisted the help of historians, anthropologists, engineers, scientists, journalists, bureaucrats, oilmen and fishermen. Each voice contributed another layer and another complication to the issues faced by Acadians.
Though both Winkler-Schmit and Davis were experienced in their fields, they’d never taken on a project like this. Each said they learned from the experience.
“I realized there’s no such thing as low-budget documentaries,” Davis said. “You’re just spending time or money. It’s one of the two, and they’re interchangeable.”
“The greatest investment is time,” Winkler-Schmit agreed. “A lot of driving. We didn’t even know each other, and now we know each other pretty well. We’ve driven a lot of miles together and met a lot of people along the way on a shoestring budget. This is a labor of love, and this is a four-year labor of love.”
“And boy, did we not know what we were getting into.”