Katrina and Me: Meta storytelling on the post-storm stage

I was reading Andrew O'Hehir's film column in Salon today, where he mentions a new Katrina documentary screening at the upcoming New York Film Fest, "The Axe in the Attic." I can't tell much about it based on the synopsis offered on the film's website, but the following made me a little nervous:

"Drawn together by outrage, documentary filmmakers Ed Pincus and Lucia Small embark on a sixty-day road trip from New England to Louisiana, and ultimately into the Katrina devastation zone to meet evacuees who have lost their homes. They make the uneasy choice of integrating themselves into the story, 'because when you're two white northerners heading South, remaining behind the camera just doesn't feel like an option.'

Really? I'd think remaining behind the camera would be your first -- and possibly best -- option. I haven't even seen the film yet, so I probably ought to lay off, but that premise bugs me, as though it were somehow easier for Spike Lee to stay out of "When the Levees Broke" just because he's black...

At the same time, I kind of understand why you'd reflexively lean on your preconceived notions when trying to cover this. The Katrina story is so totally unprecedented, and therefore still so unknowable, that it's driven many who've been drawn to it for poorly defined reasons too deeply into themselves. As a result, many attempts at documenting what exactly went down here have ultimately been overwhelmed by the authors' sense of inadequacy in the face of its enormity.

I'm thinking specifically now of the deeply weird and beautiful-in-spots story that ran in the July issue of Harper's, "In the Year of the Storm" (thanks to Anne Gisleson of NOCCA and Press Street for giving me a copy and pointing out the subsequent blog discussion mentioned below), in which the author, Duncan Murrell, ultimately suffers what sounds like a near breakdown after taking on the self-consciously experimental task of living in New Orleans for eight months after Katrina.

I don't know where the editor was on that one, but if ever there was an instance of a writer who needed more hand-holding (not to mention better line-editing), that story was it.

Much to his credit, Murrell participated in
a sometimes painfully candid discussion about the piece
on the Ward Six blog, where he 'confesses his sins' (his words, not mine) in writing the story:

"I had gone down to the city to take back a big story. I had ambition, I imagined the glory I would earn, this would be my title shot. Arrogant, ambitious, self-important. Yes. Therefore the best outcome, or at least the most just, seems to me what has happened to that article since: it's meant nothing. It's sparked no real conversations about anything. I think very few people have read it. Or maybe plenty have read it, but they haven't been moved to say anything about it. My phone does not ring. This bothered me, I'll admit it, but the more I think about it the more I think that this is right, this is the way it should be.

I've been changed, though, and that's good."

September 27, 2007 12:44 PM | | Comments (2)



Yeah, it's an abundant sin. I don't object to the storyteller's including themselves in the story. But I do object when their narcissism dominates the telling--when they clearly find themselves more interesting than the real story going on around them, and they expect us to do the same.

The Director's Statement goes into a bit more depth on the filmmaker's decision to "break the wall:"

We felt that integrating the filmmakers into this story would offer a structure that would allow greater breadth and depth. Separated by social background, gender, and age, we hoped to integrate two points of view into our film, believing that who tells the story is integral to understanding the story. In matters of race and class this is especially important. Although Katrina damaged rich and poor alike, divergent outcomes were the inevitable legacy of the longstanding neglect of the poor.

Turning the camera on ourselves would risk making some viewers uncomfortable, but, the idea was to break the protective wall of the camera, to put the viewer in our shoes, and have them ask along with us some of the tougher questions about the ethics of the situation as well as those of documentary filmmaking itself.

Agreed that the pull quote about "white northerners" isn't very helpful.

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This page contains a single entry by Culture Gulf published on September 27, 2007 12:44 PM.

Another long goodbye was the previous entry in this blog.

I've been a miner for a pot of gold is the next entry in this blog.

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