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A BBC 2 documentary that seeks to document what has been happening on the North Sea rig “Piper Alpha” which went up in flames and explosions during a quiet night on July 6, 1988. The film decides to stay with the people who survived, allows them to tell their experiences, their way out of the mayhem. This is illustrated with original footage from the platform, and some carefully used animations based on the platforms construction diagrams, providing a very good sense of space before and when chaos erupts. For some scenes during the catastrophe, scenes were reenacted, something which I did not care for too much. I thought the footage shot from the neighbouring rescue platform were quite enough to provide an accurate idea of the despair those workers still trapped in that inferno must have felt – especially as there were some survivors who could quite clearly explain how chaotic the situation was and when they had reached the point of knowing for sure that they would die in the flames.

This was one decision of the film-makers that can be argued about. Another is the almost complete absence of causes and consequences. We learn that ill-managed maintenance may have been responsible for the explosion. We also learn that there has never been a trial illuminating the charges. While I don’t say that every documentary about a disaster needs to figure about who was responsible (as in some cases, no one is and shit just happens to happen), in this case it seemed like a tangible gap in the narrative. An enterprise of this nature and size, dealing with enormous amounts of oil and gas, can blow up just like this? A fire can erupt in a way that it cuts off the crew from the lifeboats? I was reminded of the Challenger explosion, where an elaborate process led from the assertion that “things can go wrong” to “there are fundamental flaws in the system that made a catastrophe very likely”. We learn that there was an analysis, and that there were recommendations for safety improvements. Linking those to what happened that night on Piper Alpha, a night in which 167 crew members were killed and only 61 survived, would have made a very interesting documentary, raising the film beyond its mere disaster narrative. As for what it is, it serves as an emotional reminder of a catastrophe, without daring to judge or to weigh. A possible approach, even though I feel something is missing that I would have been interested in.

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