Witness Katrina: Interview with Filmmaker Greg Jacobs

There’s been a recent deluge of documentaries and news specials marking the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Within the last week, Spike Lee, Harry Shearer and Brian Williams each released high profile films examining the continuing social, political and economic consequences of the storm. While the coverage has been intense over the last month, many questions remain about the storm and its historical impact.

Telling the Hurricane Katrina story poses a particularly thorny narrative challenge for filmmakers. The sheer scope of the storm’s devastation, the complex and politically charged efforts to rebuild, and the hot-button issues of race, class and the role of government push the bounds of traditional narrative filmmaking. The storm, and it’s aftermath, is so large and so wrought with multiple meanings that cutting to the heart of the story can be almost impossible.

I spoke to two filmmakers about their challenges and solutions in telling a story as daunting and complicated as Hurricane Katrina. This first conversation is with Greg Jacobs, co- series producer and co-director of Witness Katrina. Next week, I’ll talk with John King, executive producer of New Orleans Rising.

Greg Jacobs and his partner, Jon Siskel, co-produced and co-directed “Witness Katrina”. The film debuted on the National Geographic Channel on August 27th 2010. The film is an innovative and daring approach to documentary filmmaking: it consists entirely of real-time, primary source material shot by storm survivors as the event unfolded.

Siskel and Jacobs did not shoot a frame for the film and use almost no narration or graphics. The film has no after-the-fact interviews; no experts siphoning out meaning or context out of what happened; no graphics cueing the audience’s response to the story. Contrary to almost all television documentaries, the audience is not given any overt direction by the filmmakers.

Instead, contemporaneous video footage of the storm drawn from over 100 sources is woven together to craft a powerful and deeply immersive film. The characters of the film narrate their own stories as they happen; the audience experiences the disaster at the same time and in the same way as the people in the film do. They first used this technique in their film 102 Minutes, a real-time chronicle of the World Trade Center attacks of September 11th.

I spoke to Greg Jacobs about their unique approach to the story, the pitfalls of Katrina politics and how the film stands as a piece of history.

(Notes: the interview is lightly edited and re-sequenced. *Please be warned that links marked with an asterisk contain graphic and emotionally disturbing video material. I’ve had a working relationship with Greg Jacobs in the past.)

Q: What was your initial approach in telling the Katrina story?

A: The idea was essentially that you have a new kind of primary sources, to a degree that they’ve never been available before. The initial impulse actually was historiographical; it was about the sources really. There are all sorts of new ways to record what is going on in the moment, and there is a new way of stringing them together. It’s as if this material were a book of primary sources with the kind of immediacy that video gives you.

My background was in history so the historigraphical side of this story is dorkily interesting to me. Finding a way to create a new documentary language out of primary sources is kind of cool. Trying to rethink how you tell the story and how you use this material is exciting and fun.

We decided not tell the story the same way that every news organization tells it, with the graphics and the music and the tropes. The audience is so overwhelmed by the stories being told the same way over and over again, across every medium, that when they see this film, they say, “I’ve never seen anything like this”. That’s why people seem to connect with it. It’s like, “Thank you for not using the same language that I hear on CNN or that I read on Yahoo.”

But the challenge was, can you actually make a documentary entirely out of primary sources where there is nothing after the fact? And *102 Minutes proved that you could. We thought that the Katrina story could hold up to the same treatment.

Q: How did you craft a narrative out of the sheer enormity of the Hurricane Katrina story?

A: Oddly enough, one of the interesting limiting factors for our film turned out to be something as basic as battery life. Which was telling in treating this as historical source material. It’s not like it is with diaries; when the battery runs out with your video camera, that’s it. Your primary source material disappears.

What we found was that there is a transition about the second or third day where you stop seeing so much home video and raw footage from people who happened to have their cameras out. It starts to transition into much more network footage. And that’s because people just didn’t have batteries anymore.

Once that happens, the tenor of the source material starts to change. You start to see sameness to the network footage because they were all there to cover a story. The networks are looking for things that satisfy the angle that they are after. The questions become the same, the type of footage becomes the similar and it becomes a little dull and repetitive after awhile.

That’s why we ended at three days after the storm because at that point you can say, alright the National Guard is here, the media is here, and now let’s just let people go. The other documentaries came take it from there.

Q: One of the narrative issues surrounding Katrina is the politicization of the devastation and the recovery efforts: Was it the conservatives fault, was it the liberals fault, etc. How did you avoid the politics of the storm?

A: In the same way that we avoided it with 102 Minutes: by letting the audience re-experience what it was like, to experience it in the moment. The point is to hear the story from the people involved rather than about the people involved. Part of the idea is to get to the point before the quotations marks get put around the event. When you watch it unfold through people’s eyes, they don’t know yet that Hurricane Katrina is “Hurricane Katrina”. Katrina doesn’t yet have all of the connotations that get piled on to it later.

At certain point, about a week after the storm, Katrina stands for neglect of our cities or racial disparity or government inadequacy. But it took awhile for that to harden and solidify as a narrative. So what we wanted to do is remind people that you just can’t take the story from how the story has started to be told. Once you overlay that media narrative then there are only a handful of interpretations that you can have. That’s where the politicization comes from. It becomes, “this person’s story represents this angle or this politics.”

The politics of these two shows aren’t political politics, they’re almost narrative politics. By that I mean, they are kind of radical in that they let the people and their material tell their story. When you strip away the need to speak for people or to prove something you actually release all of this other really cool interesting stuff.

What’s fun and interesting about these shows is that it is sort of random. We’re following the footage; we’re not following an angle or a story. That somehow opens it up and you see more complexity and nuance. It becomes harder, in my mind, to say, “I can blame these people for this, or this represents X.” It always seems to be more complicated than that once you let the material speak for itself.

There’s something political about that. It’s not a policy politics, its something else.

Q: How did you keep the film from becoming a disaster reality show?

A: My sister-in-law lived in lower Manhattan on 9/11, and she said something that totally informs everything that we do, which is, “Why are you tearing the scab off a wound that hasn’t healed?” It was a great reminder that this just can’t be prurient. You can’t show horrific stuff for the sake of showing horrific stuff.

It is something that we are always skirting the line of with both of these. It becomes a judgment: does this shot add something? Does this shot enrich the understanding of this person’s experience or the whole city’s experience? Or is it there just because it is scary or violent?

Hopefully, our sensibility gives us kind of a break that we can use when it is getting too unpleasant or unnecessary. When does it become prurient rather than just horrific? There is definitely a line. For the 9/11 show, we showed jumpers, which a lot of people had stopped doing. But we thought it was necessary to understanding what people were experiencing.

You hope that you gain the trust of the audience at a certain point that you are doing this all for a good reason. The feedback that we’ve gotten from the people that lived through it has been so striking and so great, that it seems to confirm that it was okay.

Q: How do you tell such a complex story with very little or no narration? Doesn’t the audience need to be told what’s going on?

A: There was a little bit of narration for Witness Katrina because of the commercial breaks and because of the sprawling nature of it and the flood of information we had to impart. Also, people have to be reminded that they didn’t watch it unfold at the time because there were no pictures coming out of New Orleans that morning. That made a little bit of narration necessary.

But the dramatic irony is crucial to it. When the audience is watching and you’re seeing these guys goofing around at a hurricane party, you’re sitting there thinking, “Oh my god, your city gets wiped out. How can you be partying?” We know what is going to happen. We are relying on the fact that the audience knows what is going to happen and we don’t have to fill that in through narration.

But it only works for events of this magnitude. We haven’t yet tried for something smaller. These kinds of shows, because they don’t use all of the tools that you normally have at your disposal for documentary, you have to rely on the audience bringing those tools to the table with them. You don’t have to explain what happened on 9/11 or what happened in Katrina.

Q: How do you see this film as a historical record?

A: I think a way of thinking about it is as a primary source document. It’s not like the video is some icing to the history, it’s woven into the history now. It’s no different than historians reading diaries or minutes from the constitutional convention. As a historian, you think, “wouldn’t it be great to have something like this for Pearl Harbor?”

This will have the ability to communicate the feelings of these events to generations down the line in a way that almost nothing else can. Understanding an event like this is a precursor to being able to understand everything that follows. * With 9/11, if you don’t *understand how it felt it’s very hard to understand how the country reacted the way that it did for the next ten years. Similarly with Hurricane Katrina a sense of the *true unfolding of it gives you the grounding to understand the debate surrounding the storm for the next five years.

It’s just more visceral but hopefully it serves the same purpose down the line. Now, in the modern media age- the YouTube age or whatever- we digest these events as media events. So you have to know what people were looking at around the country, the images and the coverage in order, to understand the event itself.

Author: Drew Adamek

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