“New Orleans still is waiting for that first major Katrina movie,” observed Mike Scott at the Times-Picayune last week. “Surely, it’s not still too soon to tell them. After all, Oliver Stone’s ‘World Trade Center’ went into production in October 2005 — four years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It landed in theaters in August 2006, just before the fifth anniversary. Paul Greengrass’ ‘United 93’ arrived even earlier, in April 2006. So where are the Katrina movies?”
It’s an intriguing question, even if I wouldn’t want to wish a Katrina equivalent of Stone’s film on anyone. I don’t think the answer is that it’s too soon — more that Katrina seems simply too large for the confines of a normal movie, too complicated and bitter a mixture of natural disaster and national failure swirling around a city that has always proven challenging to capture with authenticity on screen. It makes sense that Katrina’s so far remained the realm of documentary and television — it encompasses such a kaleidoscope of issues, from corruption and governmental negligence to divides of race and class and region and politics, that to narrow the scope to one narrative thread seems daunting or just unfair.
While “Trouble the Water” may be, with its Oscar nomination, the highest profile nonfiction film coverage of Katrina (though not the only one, with festival entries like “The Axe in the Attic” and “Mine” taking different angles on post-hurricane fallout) it’s Spike Lee‘s two four-hour TV documentaries, “When the Levees Broke” (2006) and “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise” (2010), sprawling, messy and angry works, that seem most thorough and, because of their sweep, most sure.
Even when it comes to fiction, reality seems to intrude into the weave of a narrative, a giant, unignorable presence. David Simon’s “Treme” spun its observational multi-thread story around actual figures in the community, some appearing as themselves, others providing the inspiration for characters. Indie films “New Orleans, Mon Amour” (2008), which involves a relief worker, and “Low and Behold” (2007) (newly available on DVD), about an insurance claims adjuster, are wandering dramas set in the city soon after the storm that provide a passage through the wrecked landscape and the rebuilding to highlight the individual stories of real people affected by the storm.
Here’s “New Orleans, Mon Amour,” courtesy of Hulu: