(2008) dir. Carl Deal, Tia Lessen
While I’d long planned and wanted to see Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary about Hurricane Katrina and the disaster that it wrought on Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, but its daunting length, I think has kept me from it thusfar. This documentary, running at a more usual 90 minutes or so, seemed more easy to schedule. And being the 8th anniversary of the September 11 tragedy in New York, it seemed apt to turn my mind to another disaster that struck nearly five years later, one that took the lives of nearly 2000 people.
This film focuses on a young woman and her husband, her family and her community, who happened to tape and document their experiences before, during, and into the aftermath of the storm’s destruction. And it draws some stark critiques of the U.S. government’s response to helping those people. Interestingly, while the film is far from apolitical, the crucifixion of George W. Bush, Michael D. Brown, and FEMA is not the primary focus of the film.
The film does highlight the death and destruction, the unpreparedness of help and rescue, the blindness to the potential of the disaster, and even the military’s ironic blockade against people seeking shelter, protecting a shuttered Navy base that could have housed hundreds, if not thousands.
But the story of this film is Kim Rivers Roberts and her husband, who up to that point had lived in poverty in the 9th ward, selling drugs to survive but too poor to leave before the hurricaine. But the difference is how the experience changed them. They experienced the humanity and generosity of neighbors and friends huddling together for safety and survival, the heroism of some folks who were also transformed in the experience, and ultimately awoken to the life that they want to lead.
One man, who had been a neighborhood face and not a friendly one, finds a floating punching bag from a local gym, and takes it house to house, taking people to higher shelter. Afterwards, he even laughs at himself, that he was never the kind of person you’d expect to go around rescuing people, but the experience bonded him with people who became like family.
It’s a moving story and Kim and her husband and their friends and family do evolve through the footage, moving from her sassy voice-over as the storm is building to an increasingly considerate, wise, and caring person. And as she recounts her life, born to a drug-addicted mother who died of HIV complications when she was 13, it’s clear that her life had not been easy and could have been much worse.
It’s refreshing and warming to see a story, even one set against such politicized and horrific realities, one in which the change is positive. And it’s one that is personal, human, and individualistic. It’s a great testament to humanity in that sense, against great odds and badness.
The film isn’t the most powerful of documents, constructed from her rough footage and then built upon by the cameras of the professional film crew, who stumbled upon a great story but more just great people. It’s good, solid.
I still need to get around to the Spike Lee film sometime.