November 27, 2006

Cornell Cinema

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The events and effects of Hurricane Katrina provide an endless source for creative inspiration, critical evaluation, cultural studies and historical evaluations. There were so many lessons learned in that devastating time, and there are even more lessons yet to be learned. When evaluating its impact, there is room for the application of a myriad of metaphors and viewpoints: nature red in tooth and claw; Jobian trials; the heart of humanity; the scorch of racism; after the storm; what lies beneath; and so on and so on.

The 2006 documentary Desert Bayou, directed by Alex LeMay, finds all of these and more on its artistic palette. It is at once hopeful and cynical, indicting and assuaging, political and humanistic. Like its displaced subjects, it has no moorings, but rather it plants its spikes here and there, hitting in some places and missing in others. Take what you want from it — there’s a lot of selection, perhaps too much. I found it hard not to be picky with what fare the film presented me; after all, we’re always selective around abundance.

This is not to deny the power and interest of the film, for with such subject matter, you’d have to be dead or a bureaucrat not to find it both powerful and interesting. The film begins with an attention-deficient onslaught of images and interviews, all featuring the poor black evacuees of Hurricane Katrina recalling the horrors of those water-logged days. It then follows a few of those subjects in the months that followed — specifically, a selection from a group of over 600 refugees who were flown to Camp Williams, Utah, a National Guard base outside of Salt Lake City.

The film seems for a while to be an exposé of the racial injustices of Katrina. Many of the victims interviewed and other residents of Utah express their belief that white refugees would have been put up in hotels or downtown apartments. Background checks — with incorrect conclusions from the state attorney general — and an 11:00 P.M. curfew are also questioned, and the film asks why these measures were necessary in the first place.

Various Utahans express their consternation at the presence of these poor black refugees, while others, including a rabbi who hosts a popular radio show, wish to welcome them with open arms to the community. The culture shock is real and forceful for both the Katrina victims and the Utahans, and the film plays on this dynamic for a while. After several weeks, most of the refugees are helped back to New Orleans, while others decide to stay and try to make a life for themselves in — as is so-often emphasized — Mormon country.

The story then streamlines itself when it concentrates on the plight of two families who have tried to make a go at it in Utah. Both of the fathers carry an albatross around their necks — the one served a prison sentence and the other has a continual drug problem. Prospects initially look good, but as the snow sets in and the relief money begins to dry up, the two families soon miss New Orleans, and in the one case, the father returns to his old drug habits.

There are many heart-wrenching elements to be witnessed as these hapless people try to make sense of the tragedies and rebuild their lives. The rabbi’s preaching for unity is truly moving, and the film will pull at your patriotism as it challenges the notion of a “United” States of America. There is no denying the injustices that wrought the tragedy and persisted thereafter, but the film doesn’t bring much new insight to them.

The documentary’s techniques are also somewhat dubious and at times shabby. It claims that the refugees had no idea where they were going, yet it’s slipped in there that destinations were posted on the flights. The director clearly bounces some of the interviewees’ responses between other interviewees, so at times it seems a point-counterpoint. When the commander of Camp Williams explains the rationale behind the curfew, it doesn’t seem so illogical. While decrying racial prejudice, the film blatantly reveals its prejudice against Mormons. To top it off, at one point the narration reads “there” when it should read “their,” and at another point, in response to the selection of Camp Williams for the refugees, a hippie exclaims: “That’s crapola of the first order!”

Still, the humanity of the victims of Hurricane Katrina shines through, and Desert Bayou is a reminder that while many of us were preoccupied with our own affairs and happy lives during those fateful days, their eyes were watching God.