If 9/11 was the singular catalyzing event of this young American century, Katrina may well have been the singular paralyzing event. While the U.S. president seemed dumbstruck, blindsided and flat-footed in the face of both calamities, it’s undeniable that the 9/11 attacks stirred largely uniform reactions of sorrow, rage and calls to assistance and action. A national spirit was stirred in unison, for however fleeting a time.
But when Katrina churned up the Gulf, confusion and demoralization resulted. It was a disaster without a savior in sight, only a president peering out an airplane window and a shockingly inept emergency response apparatus. The most powerful culture in the planet’s history couldn’t help its own citizens, a surprising number of whom seemed to be desperately poor.
Like most Americans, Chicago filmmaker Alex LeMay was shocked by the images of destruction in New Orleans last fall. And like many documentary filmmakers, he knew a historic opportunity when he saw it. “We knew there would be 50 films on the subject, but this was one of those historic events that needed to be documented,” LeMay said in a telephone interview from Chicago.
“We had our funding in five days, and we were on the ground four days later.”
LeMay’s film is called Desert Bayou and it tracks the fate of 600 African Americans who were airlifted without their knowledge or consent to the heavily white and Mormon realm of Utah. It’s one of nine Katrina documentaries that will comprise this year’s Southern Sidebar series, curated by festival director Nancy Buirski.
What is most striking about these early Katrina documentaries is the portrayal of a bewildering lack of order–our inability to respond effectively to an act of God (who is probably huffing on the fumes of our smoldering fuels). The nation shuddered under the sickening blow of Katrina, and yet, seven months later, we have committed only a fraction of the resources to rebuilding the Gulf Coast region that we have devoted to our ongoing campaign in the Persian Gulf, 7,150 miles away.
One filmmaker who will be attending the festival this weekend is baffled by the cheapness displayed by politicians. “Senators and House members came down here and said we couldn’t afford to pay for Category 5 levees,” says Laszlo Fulop, co-director of Tim’s Island. “Are we looking at the price tag for Iraq? No.”
“Maybe I have a different point of view because I’m from Europe, but here it always seems to be about money,” says the Hungarian-born Fulop, who has lived in New Orleans for 12 years.
From the evidence of the films on view, Gulf Coast residents not named Trent Lott, Halliburton or Harrah’s may be on their own. And old ladies are really out of luck. One filmmaker, Paola Mendoza, informs viewers in her short film Still Standing that her grandmother’s insurance company offered the woman $903 for her destroyed home.
Meanwhile, June 1, the start of the 2006 hurricane season, looms ever closer.
The Katrina program was culled from approximately 50 films that were submitted, says Buirski, who founded the festival in 1998 but last year relinquished her title of executive director. Buirski is now the CEO and artistic director of the festival while Tammy Brown, a veteran of local nonprofit leadership positions, became the permanent executive director in November.
“We got a lot of video diaries,” Buirski says, “of people describing their experiences or recording people describing theirs.” Two of the best films in this genre are Paola Mendoza’s Still Standing (9:15 a.m. Friday, Carolina Theatre) and Neil Alexander’s An Eye in the Storm (9:30 a.m. Saturday, Civic Center). Both films are shorts–Mendoza documents a visit with her Colombian immigrant grandmother whose house was flattened, while Alexander offers an excellent personal newsreel account of the week that followed the date that will go down in Gulf Coast infamy, Aug. 29, 2005.
Three Katrina films fall into the ever-popular category of music documentaries. New Orleans Music in Exile (3:15 p.m. Thursday, Civic Center), by veteran documentarian Robert Mugge, traces the post-Katrina diaspora from Memphis and Nashville to Houston and Austin, from mainstays like Dr. John and Cyril Neville to up-and-comers like World Leader Pretend and Theresa Andersson, with generous helpings of live performances added to the mix. Cyril Neville voices the cruel paradox of any effort to resuscitate New Orleans, that the socio-economic purgatories of the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth Wards are also an irreplaceable cultural cornucopia, “the gumbo we call New Orleans.”
Two other music films are a study in contrast: Matthew Buzzell’s Putting the River in Reverse is a technically polished short about Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint making music together. To Be Continued, on the other hand, is a scrappier document about nine young black musicians who played their last gig as a brass ensemble on a French Quarter corner the night before Katrina landed. The hurricane blows them apart–one of them ends up in Sacramento–and the film documents their efforts to reunite. (The films will be shown together beginning at 11:45 a.m. Sunday, Civic Center). [See Grayson Currin’s reviews on page 51.]
Most of the films submitted for consideration were well on their way toward completion, but Buirski made an exception for LeMay’s Desert Bayou, accepting the film based on its somewhat overheated but technically topnotch trailer, a few longer excerpts and conversations with LeMay. The complete film was not available for preview in time for this article.
LeMay, who calls his film a “classic fish-out-of-water story,” reports that 600 black New Orleanians were subjected to humiliating searches, background checks and nasty insinuations about their fitness to live among the denizens of a state that is less than 1 percent non-white. While the Mormon Church, which only renounced the racist elements of its creed in 1978, comes in for scrutiny, “It’s not an anti-Mormon film, but you cannot go to Salt Lake City without thinking about the Church of Latter Day Saints,” LeMay says.
On a minute-for-minute basis, the most electrifying film on view may well be Amir Bar-Lev’s short subject New Orleans Furlough (9:30 a.m. Saturday, Civic Center). The rough cut the festival supplied was a mere seven minutes long, but it paints an unvarnished portrait of an emotionally ravaged Louisiana Guardsman, Aaron [last name withheld], who returns home from heavy fighting in Iraq to face Katrina’s aftermath in his hometown. “I come back from one war and I gotta go to another one. Can you believe that shit?” Aaron fumes.
Bar-Lev, a New Yorker, located Aaron as he was mustered out at the airport, in front of the soldiers’ family and friends. “He was very shrewd,” Bar-Lev recalled in a telephone interview. “The first thing he said to us was, ‘You’re filming me because you think I don’t have anybody to get me.’”
Aaron may have figured out Bar-Lev, but he’s hopeless with himself–as we discover to harrowing effect over the next six minutes. This man, a proficient killer on the battlefield, becomes a haplessly boozing geyser of instability as he struggles to find his bearings in a country he barely recognizes. In one fleeting shot–and by surreal happenstance–we catch a glimpse of the ubiquitous Anderson Cooper standing in front of a camera in the background as Aaron drives aimlessly through town. As a synecdoche of the present state of America’s uniformed responders–military and otherwise–New Orleans Furlough is, in a word, powerful.
The film that carries the most potential for polarizing audiences is a feature-length effort entitled Tim’s Island (9:30 a.m. Saturday, Civic Center), co-directed by Laszlo Fulop and Wickes Helmboldt. This film will inevitably remind viewers of reality television (The Real World: Katrina, anyone?). In this film, dedicated to the “bohemians of New Orleans,” 16 kool kids gather in a two-story loft with seven dogs and eight cats. They ride the storm out, but what is initially a blast turns into a real life episode of Lost as the rapidly rising waters turn their warehouse into an island, or as one of them puts it, a “Mad Max post-apocalyptic fortress.” In a telephone interview from New Orleans, Fulop acknowledged that much of the week was a “big party … we were tired all the time and lots of people were drunk.”
Buirski loves the film, which is indeed riveting, but admits that it was initially troubling to her. “My first thought was that it might not be for us,” she says, acknowledging that the film’s subjects could be seen uncharitably as “selfish white hipsters getting off on the drama of it. We don’t feel sorry for them the way we do the people at the Superdome. They probably could have gotten out sooner if they’d wanted to.”
Their privileged worldview makes it possible for them to enjoy the apocalypse at their doorstep, and even shake their booties on the rooftop to the sounds of congas and helicopters. Tim Frisby, the major domo of the commune, is something of a survivalist who keeps guns around, and his generator powers the fridge and television and keeps the filmmakers’ camera batteries charged. The islanders’ “shopping” excursions keep them well-supplied with booze and cigarettes.
But for all the occasional annoyances of their too-cool posturing, the film is nonetheless gripping in its immediacy and compelling in its portrait of habitual ironists colliding with reality. Their widening comprehension of the true scale of the devastation sets up a stunning finale, a long tracking shot down the evacuated convention center, littered with the refuse of the thousands who had sought refuge there.
Buirski was surprised by the relatively apolitical content of the films she received. While state and federal officials and agencies are criticized in passing in numerous films, only Adam Finberg’s After Katrina: Rebuilding St. Bernard Parish (9:15 a.m. Friday, Carolina Theatre) concerns itself with the grueling task of negotiating the rebuilding process. We learn that the most thorough devastation occurred in St. Bernard Parish, a largely white, working-class community located just southeast of New Orleans.
Finberg shot his film in December, when one would expect rebuilding to be in full swing. Instead, the film reveals a bombed-out community filled with demoralized and homeless people still struggling to figure out where to begin. Help and hope are far, far away and the ironies are sometimes too bitter to bear: The community, which once thrived on the oil industry, endures a toxic spill of over a million barrels of crude that turned their home into a toxic waste dump.
Finberg documents a group of citizens struggling through the days, groping though the layers of bureaucratic buck-passing and inadequate response. The post-apocalypse has come to Louisiana, but still they struggle on. One community leader named Walter Leger, an otherwise bottomless fount of positive energy, drops his facade of good cheer near the end of the film to offer a bitter coda: “When people say ‘God bless America,’ I hope they really mean all of America, not just the beautiful mountains and the beautiful seashores but the working communities of America like St. Bernard Parish.
“We need this blessing, but we also need help.”