This is part two in my continuing conversation with filmmakers about the political and narrative challenges they faced in producing films about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. While numerous documentaries have been released to mark the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the story is far from being definitively told. Hurricane Katrina was so large, so devastating, so politically charged that it is impossible to come a consensus about what the “Katrina story” is or what it means.
Filmmakers have come at the story from a variety of angles; I’ve spoken with two filmmakers that approached the story from radically different angles but encountered similar challenges.
Last week, I spoke with Greg Jacobs about Witness: Katrina, an immersive, real-time film made entirely of primary eyewitness source material that tracked 72 hours of the preparation, landfall and immediate aftermath of the storm.
This week I speak with John King, producer and director of New Orleans Rising. King took a longer, macro view of Hurricane Katrina, following five different people over the course of a year as they prepare for the 2007 Mardi Gras. The diverse group ranged from an African American “Indian Chief” to a wealthy white businessman to a high school bandleader to a female artist in the French Quarter. New Orleans Rising debuted on WYES, New Orleans Public Television, on August 27th, 2010.
On the surface, New Orleans Rising is about the physical recovery of New Orleans. But on a deeper, more thought provoking level, it’s the larger story of New Orleans cultural importance and uniqueness that emerges as the driving force behind its resurrection. The intimate and overwhelming struggles of the film’s characters highlight the value they attach to New Orleans culture and to what lengths they will go to fight to preserve their way of life.
I spoke to John about his narrative process, “Katrina fatigue” and the difficulty of capturing a culture on film.
(Note: this interview has been lightly edited and re-sequenced. John King and I have had a professional relationship in the past.)
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Photo courtesy of Chieftain Productions
Q: What is your film about?
A: It is hard to say what it is about because so much has happened with Katrina, and so much has happened since Katrina. One of the things the film is about how people, not just in New Orleans, recover from a massive trauma: “How do people survive and deal with an incredible trauma that just knocks them off their feet in a way that they can’t even imagine? What keeps people going in those situations? Why do they not keep going if they decide to give up?”
New Orleans itself is a really complicated city, which I certainly knew before I went down there, but it’s even more complicated than I understood. How does this great trauma affect different kinds of people in different parts of the city? How did it affect the different socio-economic groups or different cultural groups, different ethnic groups? How does it affect them individually and as a representative of the whole city?
It’s also about the beauties of culture; the wonders of culture; the aesthetics and emotion and power of culture. And by extension, how culture answers some of those first questions I mentioned. It’s about the idea that in great times of trauma or crisis people rely on culture to keep them going, to give them meaning, to give them stability to decide that it is worth hanging in there.
Q: How did you come to make a film about New Orleans? What were your initial thoughts in approaching the subject?
A: I was crazy. I was in DC when Katrina happened, and it was amazing to see the media images coming back. I met a couple of people who were displaced by the storm in DC. I was chatting with them, and they said I should make a film about New Orleans; there’s stuff happening down there. I thought, “I am sure there is but what do I have to say about it? What would do I have to add? What do I know New Orleans?”
One of them kept telling me that I should go down there and make a documentary about how they pulled off the first Mardi Gras (2006). I decided that it was still such a journalistic story, the storm and its immediate aftermath, that by the time that first Mardis Gras happened there would be an incredible amount of coverage from people all over the world. It wouldn’t stand up to a narrative documentary treatment because there would be wall-to-wall news coverage.
But by virtue of these discussions, I decided to go down on a scouting trip for the Mardi Gras of 2006. And when I went down for that weekend it was really fascinating to be immersed in it.
Originally, I thought they’d line up and march down the street, but there are a lot of cultural complexities to Mardi Gras. I started to think of Mardi Gras as more than just a parade in which people can drink on Bourbon Street. I started to see the different pieces of Mardi Gras had their own cultural roots and legacies.
I thought, that’s interesting; I’d like to learn more about these different parts of the culture. Like what do whites bring to Mardi Gras? What do blacks bring to Mardi Gras? What do the middle class folks bring to Mardi Gras? What do the rich people bring to Mardi Gras? They were in different economic strata and different parts of the city and all being affected differently by the trauma. Yet, they were all thinking of trying to save the culture of New Orleans as well as their houses. That theme started to emerge then.
Q: In a story as big as New Orleans culture and recovery, you are talking about an enormous narrative challenge.
A: It was overwhelming, at least the way that I experienced it. I was thinking, “How am I going to make any sense of this?” It’s great to be here and it’s great to experience it but it kicked off this internal creative struggle: “Yes, this is cool and interesting but do I have anything to say about it? I am just a European American guy from Maryland, can I add anything to what has happened here?”
The first step is for me was accepting that it was both exciting and overwhelming and bigger than me. The next step is somehow continuing on through that feeling of being overwhelmed. For any creative person attacking a big subject, I imagine that comes up at times. Once I decide to keep moving forward it was a matter of starting to try things. It’s a matter of experimenting with what you do have and trying new things to get at.
One advantage of the documentary realm compared to some other kinds of history work, or narrative storytelling, is that usually you get other people involved in the process. I depend on that; I knew I needed that. I was working with great people. I could not have made this film without the fine camera work of the two DPs, Ed Stephenson and Jason Harvey, and without the masterful editing of Sam Morrison. These three guys were indispensable to the making of this film, each in their own way. If I had been totally on my own, I would have just spun around for a long time. By having someone else involved in the process, you can start to bounce things off each other.
Another part I have to add, is that along with that emotional process I just described, I’m constantly trying to absorb whatever background content I can. I feel pretty imperfect at that in some ways. I don’t think that I am great at it but I do try to absorb what I can along the way. I’m trying to build up my “objective knowledge base” while I am also going through the subjective story assessment process.
Q: What was your experience with dealing with the politicization of the New Orleans story? Was that something you struggled with?
A: Yes, definitely we had to face that and we struggled with it some. As we were filming, I learned more about the city, and more about the political perspectives of the people involved, it was clear there were a lot of different opinions.
We thought about how much of this are we going to get into or not. We decided that we were not going to make a “directly political piece.” That stuff is interesting but we decided we didn’t want to make that kind of film.
We decided to focus more on the individual people and their cultural stories. Once we made that choice it became our guide going forward. It was good choice for our piece in the end because people still made political comments; you get a sense of some people’s political bent and opinions throughout the film.
But I don’t think we sidestepped politics altogether and the viewers will realize that. You still get a sense that there are racial issues there, that there are still inequity issues there. It comes across without it taking over the film. The politics are still there; they are just not dominating. The human story and the cultural and social story dominate more.
Q: Did you encounter “Katrina Fatigue” from broadcasters in trying to get this film funded?
A: Yes, definitely, exclamation point to that question. I perceived that from the broadcasters as well as being aware of that in myself. It definitely made it harder in some ways. It takes me back to some of the questions I had for myself at the beginning of this process: “What can I bring new to the table?”
Because of my experience in documentary, I had a very strong sense of, “Is this a story? Are these people interesting? Do they have interesting stories?”
That was thinking about it more as a media person instead of a “person person.” As an interested human being, interested in people’s stories, history, culture and society, I felt from the very beginning that, of course, there is more to say. Of course there’s a lot more to say and there’s a lot more than I said left to say.
But with the training I’ve gotten in the film business, I felt this framing of, “is this going to merit attention because of the perception that so much has already been done on New Orleans?” I definitely got that reaction from folks like Discovery Times and National Geographic, in a very supportive way. They had done a lot about New Orleans and didn’t think they were going to be doing anything for a while unless it was really spectacular. Whatever that would mean, we were probably not going to do it.
But once we got going, there wasn’t that much about what was going on in New Orleans. That made me feel a little more confirmed that this was a story, it just wasn’t the mind-blowing story they might have been looking for.
Q: New Orleans was a distinct American place, what were the challenges you faced in capturing that uniqueness and the loss of that distinction?
One of the challenges for me was the question, “What is culture?” What is it that I can observe or find out about what was worth saving? Not by my own decision, but by the people’s own testaments down there: “This is important and we are saving it.”
Their decisions on what was valuable and worth saving informed the film.
I am painfully aware that I haven’t captured all of New Orleans culture. I don’t think anyone can capture a cultural completely, even a simple one. It’s more complex that you think. I was intimidated by that at times. Every time I picked a rock, there were three rocks underneath it. Shiny rocks too.
At a certain point I realized, we have what we have. I felt comfortable that the pieces we were tapping into had enough diversity. I felt that this film portrays some of the breadth of culture that New Orleans has. Having shown it to some people in New Orleans, they click into that right away. I feel really good about that now and comforted by it.
The feedback I get is that we tapped into the diversity of New Orleans culture in a way that not a lot of folks have. So I feel good about that. At the same time I realize that there is a lot that’s not there, and I am humbled by that.
Q: What is your overall impression of building a narrative out of something as complex the story of New Orleans in the last five years?
A: Well, I would say that it was very difficult; it was really hard. It was really interesting at times and it was also really scary at times. There were a couple of times in the field where we ran into some dicey moments but it was more frightening in the sense of, “Why should we keep going? Is it worthy to continue with this?” Are we going to have something in the end?” That was the scary part but there was a lot of interesting stuff down there too.
Now that we are at the end, I do feel proud of what we were able to accomplish, even though I still feel really humble about it. I think it is one story and just part of the story that is down there.
That people who lived through the storm say that it has authenticity. That means a lot to me, and to the people that I worked with on this, both the creative collaborators and the people who let us film them. I’m really satisfied in that sense because I was worried about them feeling like we had screwed it up.