Sunday, September 09, 2007

A Fitting Tribute

Spike Lee has always been a visible figure, unafraid of tackling or attracting controversies. When his biopic Malcolm X was released, Lee encouraged black students to skip school to see it, and on Real Time with Bill Maher Lee stated that the US government could have been purposefully slow in their response to hurricane Katrina. As each of Lee’s films are defined – regardless of cast or genre – by Lee himself, it was expected that his epic documentary on Katrina, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, would give Lee the chance to air his own anger and damning views on the failure of the government’s response.

It came as a surprise, then, to find that Lee doesn’t once appear in the four-and-a-half hour film, nor does any voice over or ironic captions. Lee literally lets the city speak for itself, interviewing dozens of survivors, politicians, scientists and New Orleans residents. The result is a film that displays, while a collective voice of anger, many different figures to place the blame on. A case is offered for why everyone involved was guilty, be it Bush, FEMA, the engineers, the military, or Mayor of New Orleans Ray Negin (who is also interviewed, and features prominently). Individual residents’ stories are pieced together from over 500 hours of footage to display a harrowingly realistic portrait of the events. Stars involved such as Sean Penn and Kanye West are given very little screen time, as Lee knows that they can’t tell the story of the forgotten underclass that is at the heart of the tragedy.

This displays a maturity and desire for the truth that should define documentary filmmaking; a far cry from the Nouvelles Egotistes like Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield. The information is not filtered through one singular figure, which means that it achieves a purity and objectivity not often seen in the recent documentary renaissance. The press made a fuss over Lee’s supposed belief that the levees were dynamited by the government, in order to drown the city; in fact, this theory is put forward by a handful of residents (who remember that the levees were exploded in 1927). Others in the film say that this theory does not stand up, and there is no substantial evidence to support it. The point of including this in the film is not to provoke conspiracy theories; it’s simply that the voices of all the people need to be heard.

Also admirable is the film’s comprehensive view of the tragedy; in four acts, Lee examines the build up to the hurricane, the horrific floods, the political response and ramifications, and most interestingly, the cultural loss that Katrina brought with it. New Orleans is famed for being a unique city, a multicultural milieu originally both a thriving slave trade and the place where slaves could find freedom. Often, Lee’s film diverts away from Katrina itself to examine what has been lost in the unique traditions in the music and communities of the city. We are given a description of the New Orleans “jazz funeral” – a funeral procession played by a brass band, first playing solemn hymns and then upbeat swing. One stunning sequence in the film shows a jazz funeral played for New Orleans itself; this is the film’s most intensely emotional moment, as it encapsulates the entire city’s anger, grief and helpless disappointment at the disaster.

The literal loss of New Orleans is also devastating; the black and poor evacuees were dispersed all over the country in need of refuge, effectively destroying entire communities. This sheds light on the drastic differences and injustices displayed geographically across America, and perhaps reflects the social dislocation experienced by the American underclass. As the camera moves through endless rubble and devastation in a post-Katrina New Orleans, the audience is left to contemplate not only how the city can begin to rebuild, with poor schooling and fewer children, but also why these communities return. The truth is, the New Orleans residents need to hold on to what they have. They are in no position to either help or harm the government, and still need a place to exist in America.

The film’s approach to narrative is to join together personal stories, but this does not restrict the ambitious scope of the polemic – on the contrary, the points being made are only heard louder when coming from dozens of voices. The interviewees are so varied that the subjects touched upon include global warming, 9/11, insurance, oil and the war in Iraq – almost a catalogue of America’s ills, illuminated by a major national tragedy. The film is unafraid of questioning America’s legacy in the wake of emergencies; why, if Katrina was a disaster on a larger scale, with a more substantial loss, will be 9/11 be commemorated and acted upon more?

Free from irony or ego, When the Levees Broke is documentary filmmaking at its best, a reminder of the importance of cinema to explore every triumph and failure of a nation. The film ends with the second part of the New Orleans funeral march – the upbeat swing dance, a celebration of life. A more suitable ending couldn’t be imagined for a film that is not only important as a revelation of the tragedies of Katrina, but also as a celebration and tribute to New Orleans, a place that has been otherwise left behind by America.


Arabella Dream said...

*enthusiastic clapping*

Anonymous said...

Man, you should totally send your writing off to newspapers. You would totally get much moneys.
I almost decided to watch that film now, but then I remembered "four and a half hours" and was like 'um that would mean I would be finishing at about 9am...'