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Hell or High Water

In 1998, I joined the production team of Julie Gustafson’s Desire, a documentary about teenage girls from three diverse New Orleans neighborhoods. Funded by both local and outside foundations, Desire was one of the first in New Orleans to create paid opportunities for local documentary makers. As a member of Julie’s crew, I met many independent filmmakers working in the city, and my short stint on the project turned into a long-term relationship with New Orleans. I visited many times over the next eight years to see filmmaking friends and to hear about their projects. When Hurricane Katrina hit, I was shaken and concerned like many others around the country. Even further, I wondered how the film community would cope. I have since learned that many filmmakers have had to relocate and may not be able to return. Films already in production have had to change course and figure out whether and how to include Katrina. Most, it seems, are committed to rebuilding and regenerating life in their city, turning naturally to film and video to document and preserve the unique culture and history of New Orleans.

Before the Storm
Independent filmmakers in New Orleans have characterized the pre-Katrina film community as tiny, chronically under-funded, and somewhat isolated. “There just isn’t the tax base to give money to film, to artists of any kind,” says Tim Watson, an editor, producer, and co-founder of Ariel Montage, a production company in uptown New Orleans. Although state agencies occasionally gave out small grants, most financing for independent film in New Orleans came from foundations and donors outside of Louisiana. Known for its music and food, the city simply lacked the civic support—independent movie theaters, private donors, film organizations—found in larger film hubs like New York or San Francisco.

In spite of this, the film industry in New Orleans has grown steadily since the early ‘90s. In the last decade, Louisiana attracted Hollywood producers with tax incentives for in-state shooting, creating employment opportunities and access to media professionals, and putting New Orleans on the national film radar. Many independent filmmakers, enticed by the rich culture and low cost of living, moved to New Orleans.

One of the most attractive qualities of the community has been its support system. Rebecca Snedeker was able to shoot By Invitation Only, about private Mardi Gras balls where young white women are presented as debutantes and queens in mock-royal courts, by bartering production services with local filmmakers. The film was later funded by ITVS and the National Endowment for the Arts and will screen as part of the “Class in America” series at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. One film’s national recognition is often cause for another’s celebration because as filmmaker Dawn Logsdon puts it, “If someone gets funding, it elevates everyone.” Snedeker adds, “We can all sink or swim. The more good things we all make, the more we might be able to be recognized as a community or to receive national funding.”

After Katrina
It’s been seven months now since Katrina, and everyone in New Orleans is still struggling to put their lives back together and simultaneously attempt to make sense of the devastation in their city. Eighty percent of the city was flooded. More than 300,000 homes were damaged. Although some have been able to return to their homes, many are still unable and have chosen to relocate permanently.

Neil Alexander, a photographer and filmmaker, started his film An Eye in the Storm just before Katrina hit. During the days that followed he often felt he was the only person left in the city, an experience that deepened his sense of responsibility to document the aftermath. One that led him to elect not to evacuate. His family home sits two blocks from the convention center where thousands of people lived in chaotic conditions without food, water, or sanitation for days after the storm. Alexander describes Eye in the Storm as the “voice and eyes for everybody that left; the voice for those that ended up staying” and hopes that it’s helped alert people to the devastation. During shooting, Alexander filmed a man pushing a shopping cart full of baby supplies—diapers, formula, dehydration fluid—for miles to the convention center, proof that supplies could get to the center—at a time when FEMA and Homeland Security said geography prevented access to the neighborhood—and that there were ordinary people risking their lives to transport them. Geraldo Rivera ran this clip a few days after the storm. It served as a counterpoint to the images of looting and mayhem consuming mainstream media.

Other filmmakers have chosen to focus on the way the aftermath has affected local culture. Royce Osborn, a native New Orleanian who directed All on a Mardi Gras Day about black carnival traditions, was working as a hotel doorman (testament to the harsh economics of filmmaking) when the hurricane struck. After five days in the floods, he managed to evacuate first to Houston and then to Los Angeles where he went on the “Tavis Smiley Show” to share his experience. Soon after, he received a call from National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC) asking if he would make a piece about Katrina. He returned to his Gentilly neighborhood, one of only two people on his block, and made Walking to New Orleans, a personal look at the cultural traditions and institutions that have been affected by “this thing,” as he calls it. Osborn’s film, funded in part by ITVS, became part of NBPC’s multimedia “Katrina Project,” which covers the aftermath through the lens of the people most affected by it.

Those documentary filmmakers with films in production before Katrina hit had to get their projects (tapes, drives, equipment), their families, and themselves to safety when hurricane warnings began to circulate last August. Days or weeks later, several journeyed back to find or follow their subjects. For four years, Aaron Walker had been filming three Mardi Gras Indian chiefs for Bury the Hatchet. Before the storm he had been promised a grant by the Louisiana Division of the Arts, which would have allowed him to finish shooting. But after Katrina, most of the funds earmarked for individual media artists were frozen, leaving him with no money and the additional costs of finding the now-displaced chiefs and bringing them back to New Orleans to boot. He chose to spend his personal FEMA funds (emergency money given to each household after Katrina) on these trips.

Logsdon and her production partner, writer Lolis Eric Elie, faced a similar change of course while making Faubourg Treme, a historical documentary about the Treme neighborhood told using the stories of present day residents. All of Logsdon’s characters were affected by the storm and following them back to their flooded homes was “really hard and really sad,” she says. “Suddenly I’m here with these people going through all of this, it was heartbreaking. We’re taking the piece from an hour to an hour and a half to include what’s happened in Treme since Katrina.”

Many New Orleans filmmakers have expressed what Alexander calls an emotional, rather than a cerebral, “pull” to their city. After many years in LA and one in New York, Osborn who’d moved back to New Orleans in 1997 says, “nothing ever felt right except for here.” Filmmaker Jeremy Campbell agrees, explaining that he believes in Marie Leveaux’s famous spell on New Orleans: “Anybody who truly loved it here, when they tried to leave, would be seduced back.” After Katrina, Campbell felt “it was time for me to stand up and do something for my city, and what I could offer was a film.” Hexing the Hurricane, which documents several people including actor/comedian Harry Anderson and journalist Chris Rose, is about the resilient spirit of New Orleanians in the months after the storm, and is Campbell’s attempt to “cover the heart” of the city.

It’s only been in the last few months that independent filmmakers have started screening Katrina footage. New Orleans-based cinematographer William Sabourin’s short Old Orleans, featuring vivid shots of people moving through the flood on foot or in boats, as well as the looting of neighborhood stores, recently screened at the Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center, one of only a few venues that screen independent films in New Orleans. Osborne, who also shared clips from Walking to New Orleans that evening, was heartened by the response: “I think people are really interested in seeing local filmmakers work on this because they’ve been inundated with seeing TV news coverage, you know, seeing the same kind of shots over and over. When they see this stuff, they recognize the city because they are seeing it through the eyes of somebody who lives here and knows the neighborhoods.”

The Future

With resources and opportunities diminished, and neighborhoods empty of basic necessities, New Orleans’ documentary film community is significantly smaller than it was just one year ago, and, unfortunately, the conditions in New Orleans are still such that the city will likely continue to lose important artists to other parts of the country. Logsdon and her crew have decided to edit Faubourg Tremé in Berkeley, CA. And they’re still not sure if they will ever return, says Logsdon. Though, she explains, the distance has given her perspective allowing her to reflect on Katrina and to incorporate it into her project in a meaningful way. Francis James, Receiving the Gift, grew up in New Orleans and had been part of the film community for years. After the storm, his wife lost her job as a public school teacher, and he relocated his family to Louisville, KY. “There is the unmarried, unfamilied filmmaker and then there is the person who has got a family and a household that had to be part of the calculation,” he says.

After Katrina, Snedeker lived and edited By Invitation Only in Austin, Texas. In December, she decided to move back to New Orleans. “I wasn’t sure I’d be able to work well [in New Orleans.] I knew I needed to finish the film, and that was number one. I kept hearing stories about it just being so hard, people weren’t getting any kind of consistent electricity … there were very basic questions like: Would the computer go off all the time?” But once she arrived, she knew she had made the right decision: “I was going over the Mississippi River Bridge, and I started feeling better. On that day I decided I’m staying home, and I was totally relieved to be here.”

Gustafson is also back rebuilding her home, though she lost her job as a video teacher and isn’t sure if she’ll be able to stay long term. “We don’t know if the levees will hold. There have been some improvements this year, but what if this would happen again? That is hanging over everyone.”

Another devastating loss to the film community was the suicide of Stevenson J. Palfi, a well-known, Guggenheim Award-winning documentarian, who took his own life three months after Katrina damaged most of his property and work. His film Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together chronicled the lives of three New Orleans jazzmen. Palfi “was known as the person bringing this music to the rest of the world. He was able to capture (the musicians) and immortalize them. He had such an insight into this music. It’s very tragic,” says Walker, a friend and collaborator.

Whether or not the federal government helps rebuild the city, more and more filmmakers are coming on board to keep New Orleans in the spotlight. This year’s Full Frame festival will include a special program called “Southern Sidebar,” documentaries from the Gulf. Spike Lee is producing a documentary about how race and politics collided after Katrina which will air on HBO near the one-year anniversary of the storm. “American Experience” has commissioned Stephen Ives, founder of Insignia Films in New York, to direct a two-hour film about the history of New Orleans. New York-based filmmakers Carl Deal and Amir Bar-Lev are co-directing Trouble the Waters about two New Orleanians who became unlikely heroes during the storm. A.M. Peters has just directed If Ever I Cease To Love, which explores post-Katrina New Orleans. Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai is planning a narrative feature about the human tragedy that unfolded in the wake of Katrina. And there is more to come: local filmmakers say they have recently spotted production crews from Japan, Germany and other countries shooting in their city. If they have anything to say about it, the filmmaking community as a whole will keep alive this hugely influential portion of US culture and history by continuing to tell New Orleans’ stories.

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