Capturing Katrina

Four documentaries remind the world that the Gulf Coast still needs help.

Hard and precious lessons have been learned in the year since Hurricane Katrina. New Orleanians and their neighbors all along the ravaged Gulf Coast have learned ' firsthand and by ceaseless repetition ' about government ineptitude, sanctimonious indifference and steep-grade uphill battles. They have also been educated in the vast depths of human charity and compassion. Individuals, churches and organizations from around the world have continuously taken up a recovery banner tossed aside by elected representatives who haven't exactly represented.

Now, nearly a full 12 months later, hard and precious lessons remain to be taught. As residents of cities and towns from Texas (courtesy Rita) to Alabama engage in the slow, sad and sometimes solitary work of putting their lives back together, it's time to remind the world that Katrina and Rita are not over ' Katrina and Rita are still happening every day. But how do you get people to listen to such a lesson?

In a first wave of films made about the storm and its aftermath, four documentary filmmakers have picked up their cameras and decided to try, with varying degrees of success. Another lesson of Katrina is that sometimes a picture really isn't worth a thousand words ' at least not when the goal is capturing a reality that so many admit beggars words and photos. Maybe if we look at all these pictures together, though, we'll start to see the truth. One-time New Orleanian and current Lafayette resident Jeremy Campbell's Hexing a Hurricane pieces together shards of life in the city since the storm. Director Danny Clinch and R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe chronicle the process behind ' and deep need for ' Stipe's six-song Katrina-benefit E.P. In the Sun. NBC news anchor Brian Williams sits down for a piercing discussion of his surreal experiences inside the Superdome In His Own Words. And British documentarian Leslie Woodhead profiles legendary jazz photographer Herman Leonard's storm saga in Saving Jazz.

Campbell's previous work includes the excellent Mardi Gras documentary Don't Worry Honey, I Live Here, but Hexing a Hurricane sometimes feels more like a blog than a film. The opening presentation of a pre-2005-storm-season voodoo ceremony in the Ninth Ward sets no discernible theme, other than obviously suggesting the film's nifty title. Voodoo priestess Sally Glassman comes with no context, a seemingly random white woman explaining the beliefs of an ancient African religious tradition. It's hard to pinpoint just what the point of Hexing a Hurricane is, between the film's voodoo bookends, its featured interviews with not-very-well-explained-for-the-uninitiated New Orleans luminaries (The Times-Picayune's Chris Rose, WWL-TV news anchor Angela Hill and television-star-turned-club-owner Harry Anderson), and its static, still-photography display of damaged homes and damaged lives. The DVD's best feature is an extra; Campbell films the participants of a somewhat impromptu community meeting held in the French Quarter as each makes an individual, direct plea to Washington, D.C. Don't forget us, they beg; we can come back, but we need your help. There's real heart underneath the surface of this project, but too little blood and emotion beats on screen.

In the Sun has a quicker pulse. Contrary to its subtitle description ' "Michael Stipe and Friends" ' the film mercifully spends very little time explaining the benefit musical project that spawned it. Stipe is predictably sensitive and pretentious in describing his reactions to the storm and its aftermath, but the meandering documentary quite nicely and wisely moves away from him to capture the realities of life on the coast. Residents speak the truth of their losses, sometimes through tears, always with determination. Tulane University historian and author Doug Brinkley provides steady, succinct commentary, with resonant insights about the startling lack of federal involvement in recovery efforts. Pick a president, he challenges: Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, JFK, Ronald Reagan. None would have been satisfied with what is ' and isn't ' going on along the Gulf Coast. It's a point well-served by Clinch's interviews with grass-roots activists and church groups. In the Sun starts with a song but surprisingly morphs into something more compelling as it restlessly roams the coast.

Even more successful is In His Own Words: Brian Williams on Hurricane Katrina. The 40-minute film is sharply focused, targeting a single, personal reaction to a national tragedy. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams sits for a one-on-one and details his five days in New Orleans after the storm hit. Williams and his crew rode out the storm ' and witnessed firsthand the misery of the stranded ' in the Superdome. His heartfelt conversation is interspersed with jarring footage, photos and stories from his time in the building and then later, outside, on the ground as conditions deteriorated and looting began.

Like CNN's Anderson Cooper, Williams recalls how he and his NBC peers occasionally gave voice to a righteous rage on air, confronting FEMA officials and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin with the details of what they were seeing. As he appears on air every night, Williams relishes ' even perfects 'the dramatic delivery and starched tones of an anchorman, both of which are in full evidence as he recounts his experiences. Still, his common-sense disbelief of the chaos and the lethargic government response that he witnessed ' what he eloquently terms the "split-screen America" ' shines through. "I'm enough of an idealist to believe that string of presidents I've grown up with," he muses, "telling me that we're all of equal value. But if you take my two kids and their two counterparts in a family of color in New Orleans, that those children have the same worth ... I didn't see that." In His Own Words serves as an unblinking witness to what happened during those dark days ' and as a clarion call. Williams rightfully trumpets the urgent need for a "national conversation on the following issues: race, class, petroleum, the environment." Such strong and true statements make the tiny documentary a must-see.

Finally, Leslie Woodhead's Saving Jazz is the best of the bunch. Woodhead, whose works include Cry From the Grave and My Life as a Spy, pays touching tribute to the culture of New Orleans, avoiding handy clichés about the city's charms and giving viewers a feel for the Big Easy's rhythms. Woodhead follows 83-year-old photographer Herman Leonard as he returns to his Lakeview house and studio to survey the considerable damage and also as he visits the streets of his beloved French Quarter. The likeable Leonard, with his storied history as a chronicler of jazz, is a fascinating subject; the recovery of a stash of his negatives from the Ogden Museum of Art is riveting. But Woodhead's truest focus is the musical culture of New Orleans and how the storm has affected its future. He deftly weaves in an appreciation of the marching bands, Mardi Gras Indians and small bars and clubs that have long fed the local music scene.

Saving Jazz's singular moment comes early. When Leonard first returns to his once-flooded home, he discovers several water-damaged prints stacked against the wall. Each is pulled out for the camera to behold ' Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra ' as Leonard, ever the artist, delights in the odd marks and patterns of stains that the floodwaters have left on his beloved works. It's a lovely metaphor of rebirth and one that sums up the soul of these four very different films: New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are damaged, perhaps changed forever, but still beautiful and worth fighting to preserve. If only someone will care.

Hexing a Hurricane

Hurricane Katrina Documentaries on the Sundance Channel:
Saving Jazz
8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 29; 7 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 30; 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 31
In the Sun: Michael Stipe and Special Guests
9 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 29
In His Own Words: Brian Williams on Hurricane Katrina
10 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 29

Watery Grave
Spike Lee's documentary shows how democracy failed in Hurricane Katrina's dark flood.
By Felicia Feaster

Spike Lee has made a career of cultural archeology, reanimating America's history and experience through African-American eyes in films from Bamboozled to Malcolm X. But the four-hour HBO documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts ' which debuted in two parts Aug. 21-22 and will be shown in its entirety on Aug. 29, the anniversary of the hurricane ' is Lee's most literal work of archeology yet. When the Levees Broke is a comprehensive, gripping film that sifts through the experience of Hurricane Katrina and what it can teach us about the America we thought we knew, which is in keeping with most of Lee's previous documentaries. This is his third feature collaboration with HBO Films after 2002's Jim Brown: All-American and the 1997 Oscar-nominated documentary, Four Little Girls, about the infamous 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church.

If Michael Moore's films expose the greed of the rich and powerful by often using ordinary Americans as canon fodder in his ideological battles, Lee's exceptional grace and talent as a filmmaker is his ability never to sacrifice humanity on the pyre of political mission. Lee interviews a wide range of people for Levees to lend a richer voice to the subject matter, regardless of class, color or attitude. They include actor Harry Belafonte, CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien and Grammy-winning New Orleans trumpeters Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard ' the latter of whom still lives in New Orleans and is also Lee's longtime film composer. The film is fleshed out by experts and evidence: the academics who saw the long tradition of incompetence and racism in the city, a host of Times-Picayune reporters (whose paper won two Pulitzers for its Katrina coverage) and the engineers who knew the levees were sub-par.

But the movie is elevated by its tapestry of humble, everyday New Orleanians, including Herbert Freeman, who watched his elderly mother slowly die while waiting for a bus to take them away from the Superdome, and Kimberly Polk, a mother who allows Lee access to the funeral where she buries her 5-year-old daughter who was swept away in the flood waters. Like all of Lee's best films, Levees is deeply political. Yet its sense of moral outrage is never gratuitous and always rooted in the anecdotal, human experience of his interview subjects.

And the film suggests there is plenty of blame to spread around. His interviewees point accusing fingers at everyone from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and FEMA chief Michael Brown to a Bush administration whose key figures fly-fished, shoe-shopped and played air-guitar while the tragedy mounted. Blanchard is one of several of the participants to point out how Katrina conveyed the out-of-touch nature of the Bush administration.

"You have to worry about a country that can look at a vast number of mistakes that this administration has made that has directly affected people's lives â?¦ You have to worry about a country that can look at all that and still not see this guy for who he is," observes Blanchard, who once again provided the score for Lee's film.

Like a horror film, When the Levees Broke begins with a grinding build-up, as the city of New Orleans braces for a potential Category 5 hurricane. While the middle and upper classes avail themselves of airports and (by car) evacuation routes out of the city, the poorest line up outside the Superdome or hope to weather the storm the way many recall riding out 1965's devastating Hurricane Betsy.

But to Lee, Katrina becomes more than a storm; it's a symbol. Katrina comes on like some monster from the American subconscious, rising with the flood waters and illuminating in its wake a long legacy of racism, classism, poverty, shoddy public schools, high crime and political corruption. They all are conspirators in the drama.

While the first and second acts are devoted to the storm and its immediate aftermath, the latter two acts chart Katrina's lingering effects: battles with insurance companies who refuse to pay, and mounting anger at the administration as expressed in singer Kanye West's impromptu pronouncement on live TV, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."

Even after the waters recede, When the Levees Broke's second half shows a residual wave of injustice ' a migration as devastating as the one documented in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. With utter disregard for family connections and psychological well being, hurricane survivors are flown or bused to locations as remote as Utah and New York. Several black Americans interviewed for the film point to the parallels of how slavery also made people into chattel, though other viewers will be unwilling to even entertain the analogy. One thing's clear: Lee's profound, troubling document of a disaster illuminates deep, horrible undercurrents in America.

When the Levees Broke is in many ways an illuminating portrait of two segments of America ' the one that had its faith in America's democratic bedrock profoundly shaken by Katrina and the poor and black Americans whose cynicism about American social justice was confirmed yet again.

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
Directed by Spike Lee
Not Rated
Tues, Aug. 29 (8 p.m.-midnight) on HBO; check listings for additional times Sept. 1-4.