For his documentary about Katrina and its aftermath, Spike Lee conducted hundreds of interviews and stretched When the Levees Broke to four hours, editing and re-editing up until just days before its premier in the New Orleans Arena, making sure the details told the story he wanted.
Lee's documentary is compelling not because he endeavored to explain the mechanics of storm surges or levee construction, which are subjects he kept to a minimum. Instead, he vividly captured the emotional experience of enduring everything from standing in rising waters, to fleeing or being left unable to flee a destroyed city, the alienating and frustrating task of rebuilding a home while waiting on help continually deferred or absent. It's an amazing portrait of grieving.
Among the events deferred by the storm last year were the New Orleans Film Festival (NOFF) and the premiere of Julie Gustafson's Desire, a film honored as the best documentary submitted to the competitive division. She spent years creating her own portrait of young women in New Orleans, faced not with the cataclysm of a moment or a storm, but with negotiating the flow of daily events and the life-changing choices of being on the verge of teen sex versus teen motherhood.
Desire will be presented at the 2006 festival this week (Oct. 12-19), but it has been part of the New Orleans Film Festival's recovery as well. While the festival has not skipped a beat in its artistic vision, and has one of its most impressive slates of programming in years, the storm took away its means. Deprived of the needed revenue from ticket sales from last year, screenings of Desire, including at the American Film Insititute festival in Los Angeles, helped support the organization. Not at all relevant to the storm, Desire is a fitting bridge from pre- to post-Katrina New Orleans
Desire was obviously shot and edited before Katrina. In fact, Gustafson began the project in 1992, moved to New Orleans from New York City shortly afterwards to devote herself to it, and spent more than a decade working on it. All told, she edited 700 hours of film down to 84 minutes to tell the stories of five young women who grew up in New Orleans' Desire housing project, in Belle Chasse and Uptown. Those women shot much of the 700 hours themselves, as each one created her own series of short films about choices involving sex, relationships, what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a mother. With the girls each starting the project in their mid- to late teens, Gustafson set out not just to pursue certain subjects, but to let whatever happened in their lives tell the story.
In the vein that every portrait is a self-portrait, the film Desire has an infectious and intrusive interest in the making of films. At a basic journalistic level, it reminds the viewer that this is real life and she's not leaving anything off camera. Gustafson allows views of her camera and recording equipment in her films to remind viewers of some of the conventions of journalism. She's not against appearing on film if necessary. But this film goes a step further, and it was an unintended consequence.
A native of Boston, Gustafson became part of New York City's downtown video camera revolution in the early 1970s. The first video cameras were put on the market in the late 1960s, and that spawned a generation of filmmakers, who created art and documentaries and opened the first video theater. Over 20 years, she became a proficient filmmaker and produced many small budget films, often turning to the subjects of young women's sexuality and abortion. In the early 1990s, she heard about the Desire housing project from a professor at UNO and became interested in the neighborhood and residents who lived on streets named Piety and Abundance.
She spent two years meeting women in Desire. But they resisted the notion of her filming their teenage daughters. What would Gustafson do for the girls besides use them, they asked.
"I view my work as an artform and as politics," she says. "The artist part of me couldn't give up the metaphor of Desire Street."
Gustofson responded with the offer that she would teach them skills, like how to write a script, use a camera and edit film. She would pay them and she would give them artistic control. The mothers had doubts about how the girls would be portrayed, and an early group discussion of the matter is in the documentary, but they agreed.
The film lays all of its cards on the table as we first meet Cassandra, a 15-year-old set on graduating from Carver Junior/Senior High School and entering the military. Then we meet the other girls. Tiffanie from Belle Chasse who is just out of high school and a married young mother. Peggy and Tracy are students at Newman, and their early scenes are of them discussing whether they are interested in having or talking about sex. The film eventually returns to Desire, where we meet Kimeca, who already has a child.
All of the women make films about themselves over the course of five years of interaction with Gustafson. She assigned each a mentor to help teach them not just how to make video but to craft stories and messages.
"I don't think people have a voice if they don't have control -- if they don't know how to write or to edit," she says. "The girls had to edit all their pieces. I gave them someone to talk with about whether they wanted to do it this way or use that frame."
The film is extraordinarily compelling in part because of the patience Gustafson had in getting to know the girls over so many years, but also because of the integrity of her approach. Nothing is left sacred or off camera. Eventually Kimeca turned her camera on Gustafson and the same subjects of sex and abortion.
"I've made films about sexuality. I was ready to answer questions. You can't put yourself on the outside,' Gustafson says. "I realized I would do it. I just didn't know when it would happen or what I would say."
Some of the film's most rewarding moments come with the fear that what is being said is going to derail the project. A first meeting between all of the women is gripping when Kimeca and Cassandra object to the term "disadvantaged neighborhood," and suddenly it's not clear whether dialogue is going to be possible unless someone is willing to be vulnerable. And even so, trust takes time.
Ultimately the women make very candid and revealing videos that chronicle how their lives take expected and unexpected courses. Cassandra gets pregnant. Tiffanie gets divorced. Tracy decides not to go to college. Gustafson gets the raw materials for an amazing film. While most of the footage comes from between 1995 and 2000, she spent more than three years after that editing it into the story that Desire tells.
"The way documentaries work best -- I believe stories are important; the emotions people bring are very important," she says. "They work not when people go out into the streets [to protest] but when people change the way they look at things."
Even after 15 years of work, the life of this film is just beginning for Gustafson. Getting it seen and getting it used are the true purposes of a documentary, she says.
Film festivals are essential for such films to get exposure. Traditionally, they have been one of the few places the general public can find short films, experimental works, documentaries and, until recently, independent feature films.
Except for a showcase of Katrina-related works, very little of the New Orleans Film Festival's programming this year relates to the storm. Instead, it's a wide open package of exciting works. The Big House portion of the festival is sandwiched between two major screenings. The Queen, starring former part-time New Orleanian Helen Mirren, opens the festival on Friday night. The final film features yet another visit from Brad Pitt, but this one is entirely on screen in Babel (For a full schedule see the pullout section in Gambit Weekly 10/3/06 or www.neworleansfilmfest.com)
Academy Award buzz is building around Mirren's portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in the years surrounding Princess Diana's death in 1997. Mirren has already played Queen Elizabeth I, but this is different territory given that the Queen is living and the events of Di's death sent tremors through the British Kingdom regarding the difference between the throne and Di's popularity.
In American royalty, frequent New Orleans visitor Brad Pitt stars in Babel, which will be featured on the festival's closing night, a prestigious slot in the world of film festivals. The third film in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's death trilogy, Babel follows the consequences of an errant bullet shot by a couple of boys in Morrocco. Sort of a mix of Kurt Vonnegut's Deadeye Dick and Albert Camus' The Stranger, this story is about unacquainted people in different countries, speaking different languages who become strangely connected by the bullet's impact.
Many of this year's major films are about the intersection of politics and private life. Another major inclusion in this year's festival is Shut Up and Sing, a documentary about the Dixie Chicks, the best selling female band who went from the heights of their country music-based fame into a whirlwind of controversy after lead singer Natalie Maines criticized President Bush during a concert in 2003. The film follows them through the backlash and death threats that followed, and reveals them in their personal lives and making music. At the other end of the spectrum, Willie Francis Must Die Again, a documentary narrated by Danny Glover, is about a Louisiana man who survived the electric chair in 1946. Eventually the Supreme Court voted to allow Louisiana to put him back in the electric chair for a second execution. In another story about a Louisiana native, Wrestling With Angels profiles playwright Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America and one of the nation's premier and most politically active writers.
Short films are fun territory for wildly divergent ideas. The In Competition portion of programming rounds up groups of short films with common threads and screens them in a series of showcases at the Contemporary Arts Center. This year's selection is distilled from the films that were to be shown last year. The short narrative winner, Goodnight Bill, asks how much loneliness prejudice is worth. The farce Guard Dogs takes a COPS approach to the lives of dog catchers. Nick and Stacy is a shot-in-almost-real-time version of the awkward experiences that starts in a hotel room with the question, "What was your name?" And The Death of Salvador Dali is a fittingly surreal romp imaginging an actual meeting between the artist and Sigmund Freud, featuring Playboy and fetish model Dita Von Tease.
Besides Desire and Willie Francis, the documentary portion is strong. The Ground Truth looks at the lives of soldiers both in Iraq and when they return home and struggle to adjust to their former routines. And there is a series dedicated to Katrina films. The Katrina material includes a broad range of approaches to the catastrophy and recovery, from vignette film-poems to more conventional short narratives, as in Saving Willie Mae's Scotch House, a film about the on-going efforts to reopen the Mid-City restaurant.
THE FILM FESTIVAL LOST TWO THINGS DUE to Katrina. After the prior year of operations to schedule major films in the Big House portion of premiers and screenings, hours of jury screenings of short narratives, experimental and documentary films, and other pre-empted seminars and programming about the film industry in Louisiana, they had no revenue to show for the cancelled festival. They also almost had no staff to continue.
"All of the full-time staff's homes became unlivable," says NOFF president Michael Allday. "We were scattered all over the country."
In October when the festival was supposed to be happening, they were finally able to meet in New Orleans.
"It was obvious we couldn't do the October festival. That was impossible. But we weren't going to throw in the towel."
The first thing that happened was a November screening of Desire at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, which had already been planned. Several members went to the event, and the film's two screenings were dedicated to benefit NOFF. At the event, Hollywood stars including Anthony Hopkins, George Clooney, Sean Penn and others signed film canisters and donated them. They will be auctioned off in a silent auction at NOFF's festival gala.
"George Clooney drew a little cartoon on one," Allday says.
As the year progressed, Desire was screened elsewhere around the country to benefit the festival. But back in New Orleans, festival staff realized that the issue wasn't solely monetary.
"We had a fundraiser at Savvy Gourmet, and it was packed. People wanted things to do. Places to go out and see each other," says Allday. "It made me realize we have to put this festival on."
The film festival isn't alone. There is a backdrop of film industry presence in Louisiana that is growing again, particularly because of the tax incentives the state offers the industry to do significant production work here. There was already both knowledge and interest by major industry players and actors at every level who wanted to return to New Orleans.
Anther enhancement came via an existing relationship with the Independent Film Channel (IFC) and Cox Communications. Both stepped up their relationships and became major sponsors for both this and the 2007 festival. IFC operates in many areas of independent film production and all mediums of distribution. The festival has incorporated an IFC development called the Media Lab. It allows independent filmmakers to post videos online. Viewers can watch and vote for their favorite films. The web portal is accessible from Cox's homepage (www.aboutcox.com). This year's festival will include a Media Lab showcase of the top films and they will also be available via Cox On Demand, extending the reach of the festival.
Allday points out that video technology, starting with small hand-held cameras, democratized the medium. Film festivals have benefited as more festivals and ever more films have been created in the last two decades. More than 800 films were originally submitted for the 2005 festival. Now the Internet and the expansion of cable channels is making the viewing of short films more accessible. Allday doesn't see any of it as a competition for viewers.
"The more interest that's generated in film, the more people want to go out and see film. I think people like going to the theater," Allday says. "Whether people like going out or staying in to see them, it promotes independent film, which is what we are all about."