Katrina documentaries talk, argue, and fall silent before disaster

Hurricane Katrina was a documentary the first time around—one presented in real time, on cable and the internet, over webcams and blogs and other media that didn't exist the last time Lake Pontchartrain spilled into New Orleans. For those of us who love the city, watching it drown from afar after the levees failed was like observing a family member dying slowly before our eyes on national television. Anyone could see what was happening, which made the frozen federal response all the more shameful and infuriating. "Katrina" became shorthand for a natural disaster on the Gulf Coast, a manmade catastrophe of engineering and an emergency system meltdown in plain view of the world.

Our subsequent failure to rebuild New Orleans—and I write this with a reporter's cool—is something that should be properly viewed as a crime. You can tell a lot about the subject from the schizophrenic rationalizing of right-wing talk radio, that funhouse mirror of America's conscience, which can't allow one simple fact: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has admitted that bad design and construction, not the hurricane, were the primary causes of the floods. This bit of news, like the stalled reconstruction, arrived after Katrina's "window" had closed. Now those hoping to keep the issue alive look to documentaries such as Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, which first aired on HBO last summer.

"To watch somebody be rescued off of a roof, that's amazing television," says Terence Blanchard to the camera, amid the hour and a half of extra footage included on the recent DVD release (and he should know something about presentation—the jazz man composed the film's blue-as-death score). "But for these homes to just sit there with nothing happening, that's not drama."

About six months after going down to see the disaster myself last Mardi Gras, I caught my first glimpse of Katrina footage in the intensified setting of documentary: A short video, "The Art of the Storm," screened here last summer, delivering the bad old news with a reassuring narrative about charity, solidarity, and renewal (Minneapolis curators honorably helping Mississippi artists). The same year, Robert Mugge's New Orleans Music in Exile took a similar approach to Louisiana's musical diaspora, devoting its feature length to the musical and personal specifics of the Iguanas (in Austin, Texas), the ReBirth Brass Band (in Houston), and Irma Thomas (trying to rebuild back home) while letting social outrage peek through only incidentally—and without context. Says WWOZ manager David Freedman in the film: "Until somebody worries about how we get our neighborhoods back...especially the bands, the marching bands, how we get those programs back, this may be the last generation [of musicians]."

A similar spirit of helping out creative types must have animated "New Orleans Revisited," a February 21 program at Walker Art Center (7:30 p.m.) that brings new work by displaced New Orleans video artist Ryan Trecartin together with two other shorts about the post-Katrina United States: Liza Johnson's largely wordless series of scenes from the flood lands, "South of Ten," and local filmmaker Chris Larson's "Crush Collision"—not really a documentary at all, but an expressionist nightmare. I'm not ready for abstraction on a topic this pressing—and the appearance in Larson's video of local musicians Grant Hart and Michael Bland is distracting—but the images do have the unprocessed quality of real dreams: a house surrounded by water, a praying family inside, a piano upstairs about to rock over into the lake (yeah, I've had that dream).

Good intentions power the single-minded propaganda of Hurricane on the Bayou, an IMAX film screening daily at the Science Museum of Minnesota, which dispenses with just about every other Katrina-related controversy to make the case for wetland restoration—not exactly a hot topic even after the storm. I don't even mind that it closes the sale with staged scenes between fiddle prodigy Amanda Shaw and blues man Tab Benoit—effectively offering a cute little white girl as a representative of southern Louisiana's musical heritage. But the colossal American failure toward its most vulnerable citizens is reduced to four words describing the rescue operation as "too late, for some." At least global warming gets a mention (thank the similarly streamlined An Inconvenient Truth).

By comparison, When the Levees Broke—whose second half screens Wednesday night at St. Thomas University as part of the school's "Katrina Awareness Week"— is hardly the one-sided exercise Lee haters seemed to have expected: It combines the bird's-eye view of Do the Right Thing with the naturalism of real human exchange. Yet anger is more than the common thread: It's a focusing energy for four hours of oral history (from the endlessly engaging Wire actor Wendell Pierce to the guy who yelled, "Go fuck yourself, Mr. Cheney"). Lee's film has a point of view that frames even its poetic set pieces, such as a staged second-line parade in the demolished Lower Ninth Ward. What it lacks is an update. Lee must have completed his audio commentary before a member of the Hot 8 Brass band, whom he features in the film, was killed last December in the crossfire of shots aimed at his son. (If you're surprised to learn that kids live in the city at all, track down the recently screened Children of New Orleans: Still Weathering the Storm online.)

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