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Now and Then: After the Storm, Portraits of Tenacity in Recovery

Reviews
by Matt Brennan
October 30, 2012 12:02 PM
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Phyllis Montana Leblanc in Spike Lee's 2010 documentary, "If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise"

As a resident of a city whose history of storms — and their concomitant unnatural disasters — is troubled at best, I watched Sandy warily but distantly. Thing always look different outside the "cone of uncertainty." The images coming in from the Northeast this morning put me in a more solemn frame of mind.  

As the Washington Post quoted AccuWeather meteorologist Steve Wistar in this morning's top story, “Sandy is unfolding as the Northeast’s Katrina in terms of impact.” What that (somewhat hyperbolic) comparison might mean comes through most clearly in a pair of deeply felt documentaries about post-Katrina New Orleans, Spike Lee's magisterial, four-part "When the Levees Broke" (2006) and Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's smaller but no less powerful "Trouble the Water" (2008). Taken together, they form a map of those first and most difficult steps on the way back. (More on "Trouble the Water" here.)

Lee subtitled his film "A Requiem in Four Acts." It rings true: from the searing news footage coming out of New Orleans during those initial, terrible days, from still images of roofs peering above the floodwaters like the tips of icebergs, from interviews conducted with more than 100 people from all walks of the city's life, the film fashions both a mass for the dead and a choral liturgy of tenacious voices. Enraged and essential, this is the document that scholars will use in twenty years when they begin to construct Katrina's passage from memory into history.

The most memorable voice in the chorus may be that of Phyllis Montana Leblanc, irreverent, fiery, and funny (see video below). Leaning forward into the lens, she cuts through the bureaucratic nonsense of drug searches of the displaced ("If I had any [drugs], I'd smoke 'em. Fuck!" she retorts), and builds to a moment of intimate human connection. " "[Give us] some type of compassion, empathy, understanding," she asks, a simple and potent request from inside the cone's uncertainty. She reminds me of Kimberly Rivers Roberts, the Ninth Ward resident whose home video footage, shot during the course of the disaster, comprises much of "Trouble the Water." Lessin and Deal have less directed the film than let Roberts' narration from the eye of the storm play out in front of us. For the immediacy of the images alone — the gathering clouds, the water lashing against the top of street signs, her voice calling out in their darkening attic — it registers as a remarkable portrait of survival and recovery's human face.

These films, for all their heart, are run through with despair: at government inaction, at racism and inequality, at the military-industrial complex to which we've now outsourced our domestic travails as well as our foreign wars. As depicted by Lee's 2010 follow-up "If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise," the road home is a halting, frustrating one, but it's there nonetheless. The film returns to the subjects of "When the Levees Broke" and catches up with a few new faces, and the story they tell is one of struggle and hope, of two steps forward and one step back. It includes the Saints' Super Bowl win that winter, which I remember most vividly by the march to the French Quarter that ensued, horns honking and people screaming "Who Dat!" from the cabs of trucks, clearly celebrating more than a football championship.

Lee's latter documentary also calls to mind another movie, the final moments of "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Returning to The Bathtub after a storm has ripped through their limnal Delta community, the residents march in tandem down a narrow road, heels lapped by the receding waters — a road home just barely being revealed, but a road home nonetheless.

"When the Levees Broke," "Trouble the Water," and "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" are all available on DVD. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" arrives on DVD and Blu-ray December 4.

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