Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 28, 2007 2:03 pm 
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They wanted to do something

The Axe in the Attic, a film about Katrina survivers, signals the return to action of a documentary guru who had his beginnings in the Sixties, Ed Pincus, teamed up with a new practitioner with some good work already to her credit, Lucia Small. Its special interest is in the way it openly shows the filmmakers' emotional involvement—especially Small's—in their subject. They make a real point of showing how they wavor between examining the disaster with journalistic detachment and actually pitching in to help—if only by handing out a few dollars, which Small more than once is moved to do.

But this makes you wonder: what is this film finally about? It was fine, even essential and fascinating, for Nathaniel Kahn to talk about himself in the course of his documentary about the great Louis Kahn, (My Architect: A Son's Journey)—because he was Kahn’s own unacknowledged son and was seeking to find out what his father was really like. But what do these two white people from Boston have to do with the poor and mostly black people’s post-hurricane experiences? Are they talking about those people, or about white liberal guilt?

One saving grace of the film is that Pincus and Small do cover a wide range of places and people, "from a close-knit African American family that comes from the Lower Ninth in New Orleans to start over in the wintry hills of suburban Pittsburgh, to a single, white working mother raising two teenagers living in a condo on the outskirts of Cincinnati, to Baker, Louisiana, where the residents of FEMA’s largest trailer park ('Renaissance Village,' with almost 600 trailers) live as if in a refugee camp." The two filmmakers, whose words those are, touch down in those places, and also in Kentucky, Alabama, New Orleans, other parts of Louisiana, and Texas—and they keep track of the people they talked to in each place and do some final quick follow-ups.

Nonetheless it’s hard not to see Lucia Small’s behavior as displayed at times as anything but complaining, and to wonder why certain included scenes didn’t end up on the cutting-room floor. Is it necessary to see her in the driver’s seat saying how tired and demoralized she is when they’ve just arrived in New Orleans and gotten lost, downtown? Even some of the displaced people seem representative more of their own dysfunctionalities than of the specific effects of the disaster.

It’s fine to focus on personal experience, on the constant tears and sometimes curses of flood and hurricane victims who've lost all they had. The experiences of Pincus and Small, their squabbles and doubt, however, pale by comparison.

Pincus and Small do make a good working team. On their “sixty-day road trip” he is the cameraman (most of the time: she films him a few times), and she’s up in front with the microphone, using her sensitivities to get people to open up. Which they do. There are some stories that could give you nightmares, as they do their tellers. Dead bodies of babies floating in the water. People stranded on their rooftops for days (the "axe in the attic" was to get up there, kept by those who’d been in floods before). The smell of death everywhere in the convention center where everyone is helpless and trapped for days. A child later poisoned by formaldehyde. A man walking two and a half hours each way from the FEMA trailer camp to and from work, because he hasn’t the money to take the bus.

This does not, however, provide the big picture or consider the relevant political issues. Those have even been to some extent covered by mainstream media, or more revealingly dealt with by alternative sources such as Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now; but they're needed for context here. In a way, a couple of people in an SUV with filmmaking equipment can give an interesting personal picture. But when it’s devastation on the post-Katrina scale, a larger picture is needed, and it takes enormous dedication, Herculean energy, to do the subject justice: in those terms, The Axe in the Attic just doesn’t quite cut it. It’s not competition for Spike Lee’s mini-series When the Levees Broke. Since the majority of the poor people "hardest hit" by Katrina and least recovered since are black, it makes a real difference that Spike Lee, besides having superior resources, is a black man.

The Axe in the Attic begins with Small’s videos of TV coverage of Katrina. She just felt so concerned, she pointed her video camera at the television screen. There’s an appealing pathos in that. She wants so much to do something, and that’s how she started. But this signifies the piggyback quality of the whole effort. Documentaries have not been one of the New York Film Festival’s stronger areas, and this is no exception.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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