Neil Alexander was in a curious position for an independent filmmaker. The longtime New Orleans resident spent the days during and after Hurricane Katrina recording some remarkable sights — the first rains, the deserted streets of the French Quarter, an impromptu talk with the lieutenant governor, and a man looting baby supplies and carting them four miles to people in need. Guess which scene Geraldo Rivera picked up for his show on FOX TV?
“I’m not a fan of FOX news,” says Alexander, “but by working freelance with Geraldo I was able to get this important story out to a huge audience.” Alexander, a filmmaker and architectural photographer who has been documenting the city’s life for almost 30 years, has continued filming following his brief stint with Fox, capturing images not captured by the mainstream media. His work-in-progress documentary, An Eye in the Storm, is an intimate portrait of the city notable for being quiet, observant and at ease with people. “I am doing this to bear witness to the event,” he says.
Soldiers and citizens face the wrath of hurricane katrina in new orleans.
Alexander is part of a close-knit local film community largely dispersed by the storm but gradually resettling. That community includes filmmaker Tim Ryan and his wife, who are still living in a FEMA trailer in their backyard and have met with 10 different insurance claims adjusters. They can count themselves lucky. Many other filmmakers, if they’ve managed to return at all, are sleeping on friends’ couches. All have had to cope with the myriad logistical problems of daily life, not to mention trauma and grief. Those who are dealing explicitly with Katrina in their work often speak with a sense of purpose: this is an “assignment” from a higher source, “history took over” and compelled them to take a new direction, or “this is not about individual expression; this is about repping my people.” Such momentous language is equal to the enormity of the event.
“There are no words,” says a staggered resident, Ronald Peret, standing at the Industrial Canal levee which broke and unleashed the waters of Lake Pontchartrain into the city’s east side. Peret is speaking on camera in The Drive, a work-in-progress by Ryan, also the director of the New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC). A tour of the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods, interspersed with interviews and maps, the film is meant to convey something of the magnitude of the destruction. NOVAC has also been funded to hire 20 local filmmakers to produce short documentaries answering the question “Why should New Orleans be rebuilt?”
Watching CNN in a Houston hotel room shortly after evacuating last September, New Orleans native Kalumu ya Salaam got the idea for a project called “Listen to the People.” He and his collaborators have been videotaping conversations with a wide range of New Orleanians at home and nationwide, about 30 so far, and plan to start streaming video at www.kalamu.com soon. “Fifty or a hundred years from now, I want people to know what citizens of New Orleans thought,” he says. A Vietnamese priest, a community activist, a doctor at the public Charity Hospital and others talk about Katrina and their broader relationship to the city.
“Whatever happens to New Orleans, it has given me inspiration to last a lifetime,” says Royce Osborn, whose 2003 film All on a Mardi Gras Day documents black Mardi Gras traditions, including the “Indian” tribes, of which he is a part. Such intimate understanding of the culture may make him and other locals uniquely suited to interpret the storm and its aftermath with grace and insight. His new film for PBS, Walking to New Orleans, looks at how the African-Creole culture of New Orleans — which has already endured many social and political assaults — will survive after Katrina.
“I’m optimistic that our city will return because our cultural traditions are strong; they hold the city together,” he says. “That’s why people want to return and rebuild. They can’t imagine living anywhere else.” For the sake of those who do want to return, may these films become not just documents of a lost city, but visions, even prophesies, of a renewed one.