SBIFF Slice: Half a Century in, We’re Still ‘Better Together’

By Steven Libowitz   |   January 31, 2019
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill; Isaac Hernandez features the community responses to this event and last year’s Montecito debris flows in his documentary Better Together, premiering at SBIFF on Thursday, January 31

Last weekend, Santa Barbara marked the 50th anniversary of the famous oil spill that befouled local beaches and, through inspiring Earth Day and the creation the EPA, basically birthed the environmental movement. Earlier in the month, Montecito marked the one-year anniversary of the devastating debris flows that killed 23 people and caused millions in damages.

What those two events had in common beyond the physical destruction of beloved locales is the theme of Better Together, a documentary feature playing at SBIFF this weekend. The 48-minute film is mostly not about the events, but about the response.

So while there’s footage of oil-drenched pelicans in 1969 and houses impaled by trees in 2018, the theme is more about people coming together to take matters into their own hands – whether it’s washing tar off wildlife and digging properties out from under the mud or forming organizations and urging legislation and other reforms.

Better Together – the title comes from the song Jack Johnson sang at the bucket Brigade benefit concert at the Bowl last March, which is featured in the film – began life 10 years ago for the 40th anniversary of the oil spill, underwent some changes in narrative thrust and then took its final shape after the Thomas Fire and debris flows.

“We wanted to link the stories,” said writer-director Isaac Hernandez, whose wife and filmmaking partner Nancy Black produced. “The message that we come together as a community whatever comes our way is what unites it all.”

The film stands out for its numerous interviews with local environmental leaders and other representatives of nonprofits, more than 30 in all, including artist and GOO co-founder Bud Bottoms, the Montecito artist who died last year, plus narration by Montecito actor Christopher Lloyd. Often times the conversations come one after another with no segues. “I see the film as a dialog in that they’re speaking with each other even if they’re not in the same room,” Hernandez explained. “The story dictated what we used, and the images, using the ones that did the best job of illustrating the narrative.”

As a result, the connection between the oil spill and the debris flow is more of a suggestion, and a nod to the greater, international issue of climate change. “The metaphor is about saving our home – our larger home, which is our planet,” Hernandez said. “But I want people to draw their own conclusions. Better to leave them with questions than give too many answers.”

Still, Better Together is meant to serve as a call to action, perhaps a subtle one, Black said. “What that is varies for everyone,” she said. “Maybe it’s just about connecting with people, reaching out to those you love. It’s a simple takeaway. But that’s the bottom line.”

(Better Together screens at 8:20 pm, Thursday, January 31, and 8:20 am Saturday, February 2, at the Metro Theatre.)


You might also be interested in...