Like a Hurricane Katrina: Docs Blow into Full Frame
By Ron Sutton
It is estimated that 3,500 cinematographers dispatched themselves to the Gulf Coast region in the days following Hurricane Katrina. Many were there strictly for sensational images and sounds. Others sought to unravel the conflict and confusion. A few were trying to document the human side of the tragedy. It was from this last group that "Southern Sidebar: Katrina" was fashioned for the 2006 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
Full Frame Artistic Director Nancy Buirski sent out a call for documentary films in October and November through the usual channels--DocuLink, IndieWire, www.fullframefest.org, et al. In a deviation from the festival's usual selection processes, Buirski screened rough cuts from mid-January to mid-February. Nine films were chosen from the 50 submitted.
The films varied from seven to 90 minutes. A variety of unusual stories were presented:
- The air-lifting of 600 African-American residents, without their knowledge or permission, from their home in New Orleans to the almost entirely white state of Utah (Desert Bayou--Alex LeMay, dir./prod.; MaryBeth Mazzone, Mike Russell, prods.);
- The experience of 16 people, seven dogs and eight cats riding out the storm and flooding for nearly two weeks in the loft of an old dairy building (Tim's Island--Laszlo Fulop and Wickes Helmboldt, dirs./prods.);
- A Louisiana National Guardsman who returns from Iraq only to confront his burglarized family home, the desertion of his fiance and some personal demons--wartime memories, alcoholism, etc.that threaten to destroy him. (New Orleans Furlough--Amir Bar-Lev, dir; Tina Lessin, Carl Deal, prods.)
Asked about her selection criteria, Buirski maintains that she was looking for three primary elements: "Craft, artistry and story--especially works getting beyond the common news footage--the obvious and repetitive storm and wreckage images."
While all nine films were moving takes on this tragic event, one film won the hearts of all who saw it. To Be Continued: The Story of the TBC Brass Band, directed and produced by Jason DaSilva and Colleen O'Halloran, is about nine young men who formed a teenage brass band. They begin by playing their borrowed and taped-together instruments on the corner of Bourbon and Canal Streets to raise money for their 9th Ward School band. One boy cryptically states, "If I wasn't playing in this band, I'd either be in jail, selling drugs or dead." But on the verge of their going from "the Big Easy to the Big Time," Katrina destroys their dreams and their modest homes, and scatters the musicians from Atlanta to Dallas to Sacramento.
TBC tells the moving and inspiring story of the band's emotional journey back together. The filmmakers skillfully use a variety of artistic techniques in sound and image editing that sustain audience interest throughout the 90-minute work.
Jason, the tuba player, is the band's leader and visionary who works tirelessly and skillfully to get the band back together. At one point he explains the band's odd name: "The past is over; we are in the Right Now, trying to get to the Not Yet. That's what 'To Be Continued' means."
The final scenes of the film depict the band's return to their original corner, Bourbon and Canal. Denizens and exhausted relief workers from the French Quarter eagerly respond to the spirited music, and the TBC Brass Band sounds a defiant note of triumph and renewal.
As the credits rolled after the Full Frame screening, the nine members of the TBC band appeared from behind the screen and, just like the second half of a New Orleans funeral, led the way out of the hotel to an outdoor "resurrection" plaza. The film audience and many unsuspecting hotel guests formed the "second line."
Only one of the films in the Sidebar dealt with the effect of the storm outside New Orleans and Louisiana. Paola Mendoza's seven-minute gem, Still Standing, set in Waveland, Mississippi, made us feel the frustration, humor, strength and endurance of her non-English-speaking, Columbian grandmother when State Farm Insurance tells her she will receive $903 for her totally demolished home.
During a Sidebar panel discussion among six of the filmmakers, the question of this emphasis on New Orleans arose. Among the responses: "The Gulf Coast towns were unknown"; "Their elderly population just wasn't as 'sexy' as the New Orleans folks"; "There is a big difference between a 28-foot storm surge lasting just minutes and the flooding of a city, which took two or three weeks"; and, as Mendoza put it, "There was utter and complete devastation on the Gulf Coast, [but] it was not as appealing to the eye as the destruction in New Orleans." The issue certainly raised the specter of documentary filmmakers as "disaster mongers."
Partying in the face of significant storm threats is a time-honored New Orleans tradition. One such party led to the creation of an "up-close and personal" film in the Sidebar, Tim's Island, by Fulop and Helmboldt. The filmmakers find themselves at a place called "Tim's Loft" on the second floor of an old dairy near the elevated I-10 freeway. The partying is good. The storm is ferocious and the intrepid filmmakers climb to the roof, where rain hits them like machine gun bullets, and the wind nearly blows them away. Later, during an after-storm, a guardsman repels down a rope from a helicopter to the roof to check on the status of the occupants of Tim's Loft. The reality and danger of these shots are breathtaking.
When the storm finally abates nothing seems radically different from other parties and other hurricanes...until the water begins to rise, dramatically engulfing cars and motorcycles, making a lone canoe a precious possession. The close-up shots of the relentlessly rising water are quite stunning in their immediacy and veracity, offering an intimate picture of the flooding of the city.
The group's predicament leads to one of the most powerful elements of Tim's Island. Two modest video cameras, a small supply of tape and a generator allow the filmmakers to film these people during this crisis. We are there as they grapple with the basic questions of survival, fear and fatigue, as well as with moral issues that require, if not suspension, at least redefinition of such issues as theft, bearing arms, helping others and human vs. animal survival.
It was that doc and New Orleans Furlough that were at the heart of a soul-searching examination of the effect of the Sidebar films on the people who were documented. The question posed was, "Are we betraying a human emotion that was part of the Katrina experience when everyone was quite 'open?'"
Some of the filmmakers had not yet shown their films to their subjects and were worried about their reactions. How will the guardsman in New Orleans Furlough and the occupants in Tim's Loft feel about the way they're documented? Are there behaviors shown in the films that could actually expose subjects to criminal charges? While there were no pat or easy answers to these questions, the concern about such matters spoke volumes about the humanity of the filmmakers.
Was the Sidebar a success? "A big yes!" according to Buirski. "It worked, attendance was good, there were festival and PR interest in the films." After these fine films, one looks forward to seeing additional works on Katrina.
Full Frame paired with IndiePix and released in August a DVD of all the Katrina-related films shown at the festival this year.
Ron Sutton is Professor Emeritus in the Visual Media Department of the School of Communication at American University.