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Bamboozled on the Bayou: Spike Lee Profiles Katrina Survivors

By Chuleenan Svetvilas

From Spike Lee's 'When the Leeves Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.'

Spike Lee was in Italy for the 2005 Venice Film Festival when Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans. As he watched the devastation unfold on CNN, he immediately thought about making a documentary. "I was just angry," says Lee. "I was angry to see people suffering. I was angry about the slow response of the federal government. I was angry that the media were referring to American citizens as refugees. I didn't like that at all."

When he got back to New York in early September, he called Sheila Nevins, the president of HBO Documentary and Family and executive producer of Lee's 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls. Soon Lee and his longtime collaborator Sam Pollard met with Nevins to discuss the potential project, When the Levees Broke. Pollard had served as producer on Lee's documentaries 4 Little Girls and Jim Brown: All American, and as editor of five of his feature films.

At least a dozen other filmmakers had already contacted HBO Documentary about Katrina projects. And Nevins says she had been trying to figure out what HBO could do that wasn't already covered by all the news services. For a story of this scope, she felt that the documentary had to be authored by someone who was connected to it. "We were looking for unique positioning to enter an area where we really don't have privileged footage," says Nevins. "Spike became that access route."

Lee's goal was to let the individuals tell their story. "I didn't know exactly what the story was," he says. He began shooting interviews in October in New York City, where many of the evacuees had relocated. The day after Thanksgiving, Lee made the first of seven trips to New Orleans, where the majority of his over 130 interviews were done. To find his interview subjects, he had help from researcher Judy Aley. "She did great detective work," says Lee. "She gave me a portfolio of people and I decided who were the interesting people to interview. They were everyday people who went through hell and high water and are still struggling today."

He also talked to government people, scientists, educators and historians. "I tried to speak to so-called experts in their so-called fields," says Lee. "I did all the interviews." The director went to many areas of the devastated city--Broadmoor, Lakeview, Mid-City, Metairie, the Ninth Ward, St. Bernard Parish, Uptown and so on. "I wanted to try to have a balance," he explains. "I couldn't only be in the Ninth Ward. I wanted to try to mix it up." He also had two or three teams shooting b-roll, "guerilla-style, lean and mean."

Lee says that the biggest challenge of working on his latest documentary was that it was an "ever-evolving" story. "When Sam and I did 4 Little Girls, we were looking back in retrospect," he adds. "For this film, everyday there's a new story, new information, whether the information is true or not."

Does his fame as a director help him when it comes to interviews? Lee says that when he did 4 Little Girls, he started to notice that people seemed to be at ease. "I don't have a hard time interviewing people," remarks Lee. "I'm not trying to brag about it, but it helps. I just ask people to be honest with me." But he does admit that some people are not willing to be in front of the camera, "Spike Lee or no Spike Lee."

After working on the film for several months, Lee realized that two hours was not going to be enough time to tell the story. So he went back to HBO to see if he could expand the documentary into a two-part, four-hour film. Luckily, he got the approval because Nevins believed in the project and was willing to go to bat for it. "It wasn't a light piece," says Nevins. "But television can express magnitude through duration. I thought that Spike's passion should equal HBO's willingness to make this operatic in vision by giving it a sufficient amount of time."

When asked about the budget for When the Levees Broke, Nevins would only say that it was no more than four hours of any documentary on HBO. But she acknowledges that the film is the cable network's longest documentary, calling it "HBO's first Wagnerian opera."

Unfortunately, no version of the film was available for preview at the time this story was written because it was not yet finished. However, Pollard, the project's producer and main supervising editor, was willing to describe the structure of the film thus far. He edited the first two hours of the documentary; Geeta Gandbir edited the third and Nancy Novack the fourth.

Pollard's half of the film begins by looking at what happened, "pre-Katrina"--where people were when they heard about the hurricane and what they did. Then the film turns to the actual storm and, once it was over, the impact of the levees breaking, the personal stories about people evacuating, the lack of federal response and the reactions of people in the community, historians and others. "Then Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco finally meet up with President Bush and get the help they needed," says Pollard. "Evacuations start to really accelerate in terms of getting the rest of the people out of the city. But, there's still a lot of tragedy, so we end with a montage of people talking about the dead bodies they've seen, a montage of bodies and a gentleman reciting a poem."

The third hour looks at what happened to the people who left the city and how they are coping--the evolution of the history of New Orleans from slavery through the development of jazz--and the people who came back and how they're dealing with things emotionally and psychologically. The section shows Terence Blanchard, a New Orleans native, musician and composer for many of Lee's films, returning to the city with his mother. "It did not make me happy to have Terence lead his mother to the house he grew up in and see her collapse as she sees her house," says Lee. "But we wanted to document that."

"Act four opens with a funeral dirge that Spike shot in the Ninth Ward, which gets into a whole sequence of people who lost loved ones and their houses," says Pollard. "Then we'll get into the issues of the levees and why they broke--the wetlands being changed, the use of oil and why New Orleans isn't getting the help it needs." The final hour concludes with a look at the future of the city.

Lee describes himself as a storyteller and says that the form, documentary or fiction, doesn't matter to him because it's still all work as a filmmaker. And for this project, he wanted the individuals to tell their story and "tell the world how this is unprecedented--that the United States government turned its back on half a million of its own citizens on US soil."

Nevins hopes that the documentary will be the film of record. "The personal stories and the collected footage will be the record of a tragedy that should not have happened." The first part of When the Levee Broke airs on HBO August 21 and the second part August 22. All four hours air August 29, the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.


Chuleenan Svetvilas is a film journalist based in Oakland, CA.