The Film

Logline

Kindra Arnesen has worked hard to build a viable commercial fishing business with her husband and a middle-class home for their two children. So when an oil company spills millions of gallons of crude into their fishery in southern Louisiana, she can’t just sit there and do nothing. But as the battle over the oil spill drags on for years, her newfound activism forces her to choose between fighting for justice for her community and protecting her own health and family.

Synopsis

Spilling Over tells the story of Kindra Arnesen, a fisherwoman, mother of two children — Aleena and David — and wife and partner to her husband David Arnesen, as her life transforms in the wake of disaster. The Arnesens are a commercial fishing family based in Venice, Louisiana, a narrow sliver of land fixed between the Mississippi River bank on one side and the levee that prevents flooding from the Gulf of Mexico on the other. When BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig explodes 50 miles offshore, the Arnesens find themselves at ground zero of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

In the weeks after the oil spill begins, Kindra is angry and rightfully so. She quickly channels her anger into activism to ensure accountability and justice for her family and community. Over the course of the film, we see her anger turn from optimistic activism to exhaustion and stress. We experience her full range of emotions and complex iterations of her identity. All at once, she is an angry activist and a loving mother, she is caring and fighting, she is strong and powerless — a complexity not often afforded to women on screen.

Spilling Over is a character-driven feature documentary that is grounded in an observational approach and told predominantly through scenes of everyday life as it unfolds. The film follows Kindra, our main character, and her husband David and their two children Aleena and David, as secondary characters, over five consecutive years following the BP oil spill. While the film takes place within the context of the oil spill, it is not focused primarily on the disaster, but on Kindra’s emotional journey and how the family changes over time. To capture moments as they happened, we slept on the Arnesens’ couch and spent weeks at a time in their home capturing their lives as they woke up, spent time together, and as they dealt with everyday stresses. The approach takes viewers on an intimate journey with Kindra and her family.

The film opens in 2013, as Kindra wakes up her children before dawn and the family sets out for a day of fishing. It’s opening day of king mackerel season and the family has not been together on the boat like this, hanging out and helping while David and his deckhand Bob work, for more than three years. The kids play pranks on Bob, nap and help chop up bait. The scene subtly introduces each character and the dynamics between them. Kindra is a doting mother slathering sunscreen on eight-year-old David and holds her own as deckhand. David is steadfast and earnest in sharing his love of his work with his children. It’s been 1169 days since the oil spill.

We flashback to 2010, 25 days into the disaster. Kindra and David are sitting among their neighbors and colleagues at the Riverside Restaurant in Venice to hear from Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist and a survivor of the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska. “This spill has the potential to be a family wrecker. What we found is spikes, huge spikes, in domestic violence, substance abuse, divorces, suicides, just because of stress,” she tells them. Riki talks of waiting 20 years for claims to be settled and species of fish that never returned. She sees the same long-term disaster unfolding in the Gulf. The question of how Kindra and her family will navigate these foreshadowed struggles creates the dramatic arc of the film.

Kindra begins telling her story to media, speaking at rallies and protests as far away as Baton Rouge and Washington, D.C., and demanding answers from the Coast Guard and federal government. Through her activism, Kindra learns more and more about the potential health effects of the oil spill, dispersants, and the stressful environment. In a dramatic scene, and one which represents the first of many conflicts she experiences as an activist and a mother, Kindra decides to send her kids north with a family friend to shelter them from all the potential hazards. She does not consult David.

The audience witnesses both sides of the tense phone conversation between Kindra and David. “Maybe you should open up a computer or read a fucking book, and then you would have to agree with me on this,” Kindra yells at David. David arrived home after working for the Vessels of Opportunity program and found out his children were leaving. He disagrees with the decision and comforts 5-year-old David who is crying hysterically. Eventually he concedes and sees the kids off in their friend’s white SUV. Kindra gets on a boat to survey the oil spill damage.

A year after the spill, Kindra and David are putting the final touches on their rebuilt house that was destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. The financial losses during the spill caused them to delay moving from their mobile home back to the house for more than a year. “I never in a million years thought that I would own a home like this,” says Kindra, conjuring up images of her youth spent living in a rotting trailer behind a bar. Her goal has always been to make sure her kids have a better childhood and more comfortable life than she did. The hurricane upended that, and the BP oil spill dealt a second blow. Now, they are grappling with the possibility of selling the house and leaving everything they’ve built and rebuilt behind.

Together, Kindra and David organize their fishing community around the complex settlement agreement with BP in 2012. The settlement could pay out enough to help get their lives back on track or provide them with options to start over somewhere else, if they opt into it. On a quiet morning in July 2013, Kindra and David are surrounded by stacks of paperwork and drinking coffee. They receive a letter telling them they will be paid far less than they anticipated when they opted into the settlement. It’s devastating.

Throughout the film, Kindra and David try to keep life as normal as possible for their kids. They celebrate the Fourth of July, enjoy summer in the above-ground pool, and start a new school year. We see the kids grow from five and eight years old to young teenagers becoming aware of the world around them. Kindra and Aleena drive to a shopping center on the outskirts of New Orleans to find an outfit for a school recital. At 13 years old, Aleena is acutely aware of having her life documented, she is uncomfortable rather than craving the attention of the camera like she did when she was eight years old. Most of Aleena’s life has been in a state of recovery due to Hurricane Katrina and now the oil spill. She’s learning about government in school and begins asking Kindra questions like, “What’s an activist?” and “Can you go to jail for talking bad about the government?” School is raising uncomfortable questions that hit close to home.

Over the course of the film, the fly-on-the-wall approach places viewers right in the middle of the messy, stressful, and devastating parts of the family’s life as well as playful, tender, and intimate moments. As bills go unpaid, health and home insurance is dropped, and debts stack up, Kindra is plagued by unbearable stress and her activist work takes an emotional toll. We see the various pieces of a dramatic news story — a closed fishery, a polluted environment, tense protests, a complex settlement process — play out intimately through the family’s first-person experiences. The film draws out themes of parenting in the face of uncertainty, hard choices, resilience, the power of women’s anger, and the emotional toll of activism.

Project Stage
The film is currently in a rough-cut stage and we are seeking grants and finishing funds to complete the film in 2019.

Check back for updates, and in the meanwhile, check out our original edit of this story (published July, 2010 — before the Maconda well was capped and sealed).

Spilling Over from Powering a Nation on Vimeo.