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The New Orleans Film Festival screens its largest slate of movies ever

Even though Katrina was broadcast non-stop on cable television, it's echoed through all sorts of media, particularly photography but also in music, books, visual and found-object art. A wave of both documentary and feature films are coming in focus in New Orleans under the umbrella of the New Orleans Film Festival (Oct. 11-18). With the biggest total slate of movies it has ever screened, the festival includes works on the most far-flung and esoteric of topics, but a large number of inclusions by both local and non-local filmmakers address the storm in interesting ways.

Above the Line, about the rebuilding of the restaurant Willie Mae's Scotch House, highlights triumphs of rebuilding. Some films, like Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, were begun long before Katrina approached the Gulf and were reconsidered in light of the storm. Ultimately, it's not a film documenting destruction, but one with important questions about reconstruction. Many of the films, documentaries in particular, and others on a variety of subjects besides New Orleans and the devastation of the levee failures, are about the future.

The Film Fest brings together yet-to-be released feature films, documentaries and short and experimental films that are hard to find on a decent-sized screen anywhere except a festival. Many filmmakers will attend the festival, introduce their works at screenings or discuss their work afterwards.

Some of the feature length films include Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (about a man who reconnected with the world after waking from a coma that left him unable to move or speak), and Vince Vaughan's Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days and 30 Nights " Hollywood to the Heartland. Vaughn put together a motley crew of comics and took them on tour, capturing on- and off-stage madness to make the film. There's a French remake of Lady Chatterley's Lover.

There's a good collection of documentaries. Some of the standout films concerning New Orleans include Tootie's Last Suit (screening Wed., Oct. 17), Faubourg Treme, Vince Morelli's Left Behind (about New Orleans public schools), Random Lunacy (about Poppa Neutrino and Ingrid Lucia's family band), Above the Line (about Willie Mae Seaton and her restaurant), and The Allen Toussaint Touch (about the now ubiquitous master of New Orleans music).

Short films also receive special attention at the festival. The In Competition portion of the festival presents a juried selection of shorts. They hit all manner of subjects, tones and treatments. Most programs include four or five films and take place at the Contemporary Arts Center. A special tribute to local filmmaker Helen Hill will feature four of her films, including her former Film Festival award-winning experimental short Madame Winger Makes a Film: A Survival Guide for the 21st Century.

BOX Film Fest Venues

Canal Place Cinema

The Shops at Canal Place, 333 Canal St., Third Floor, 363-1117; www.landmarktheatres.com

Prytania Theatre

5339 Prytania St., 891-2787; www.theprytania.com

Contemporary Arts Center

900 Camp St., 528-3800; www.cacno.org

New Orleans Film Festival

www.neworleansfilmfest.com

Tickets available at the box office. Tickets for some Canal Place Cinema screenings available on www.moviefone.com. CAC screening tickets available on www.cacno.org

Tickets $8 general admission, $7 NOFS members, $10 opening night; $45 festival pass, $35 festival pass for NOFS members. PREVIEWS:

Above the Line: Saving Willie Mae's Scotch House

(photo — Willie12_bb) 7 p.m. Fri., Oct 12

Prytania Theatre One of the little crannies of New Orleans life left devastated by the federal levee failures was Willie Mae's Scotch House, a soul food restaurant down a side street in a woebegone neighborhood that had turned out fried chicken, smothered veal chops and white beans for nearly 50 years. The grassroots effort to rebuild the little restaurant is the subject of Above the Line: Saving Willie Mae's Scotch House, a short film that gives voice to the complexities and rewards of reviving the city's jeopardized haunts, joints and neighborhood institutions.

The restaurant was — and, now rebuilt and bustling, still is — the kind of place that New Orleanians love as their own and foodies everywhere dream about discovering: simple and threadbare, peopled with an interesting mix of patrons, obscure in location and esoteric in operation, and serving very tasty food at very low prices. In the years before Katrina, the restaurant's 91-year-old proprietress Willie Mae Seaton became a reluctant food-world celebrity. She was feted by New York's elite James Beard Foundation and honored by the Oxford, Miss.-based Southern Foodways Alliance, which produced director Joe York's Above the Line and championed a national fundraising drive for the restaurant.

York's film is primarily a tribute to the people who stepped up to rebuild the Scotch House, but it movingly portrays the reasons why they did. The title Above the Line is, of course, a reference to the stain of black filth the flood left on the city's buildings. Anyone who returned to New Orleans to find places they love so gruesomely scrimshawed should relate to the symbolism, practical grit and even obsession of the volunteers who tell their story here, whether they care for smothered veal chops or not.

" Ian McNulty

Killer of Sheep

(Photo — Killer-of-sheep) 3 p.m. Sat., Oct. 13

Canal Place Cinema

5:30 p.m. Mon., Oct. 15

Canal Place Cinema Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep is a footnote that every film school student should know, but it's not something one would ever find at the multiplex. Shot for less than $10,000 and mostly with a hand-held camera, the black-and-white film is a portrait of a sensitive dreamer named Stan who is coping with the frustration of life in a blue-collar area of Watts in southern Los Angeles in the '70s. While the production values at times are a little rough, Burnett has a brilliant eye for framing his story. He finds comedy in sparse dialogue, social commentary spins out of the simplest of transactions like fixing a kitchen sink or cashing a paycheck at a liquor store, and he finds absurdity in shots of children playing or watching their adult world go by. Stan works in a slaughterhouse, which itself seems odd given his suburban neighborhood, but it's part of a backdrop of petty crime, hustling and misfortunes that don't strip him of his sense of hope. While Burnett has yet to follow up on the promise that this early work suggested, it's an intriguing display of raw talent. " Coviello

Low and Behold

(photo — Low and behold hero ) 7 p.m. Sat., Oct. 13

Prytania Theatre

9 p.m. Tue., Oct. 16

CAC There's nothing in the first 80 or so minutes of Low and Behold, the debut picture from Lafayette writer/director Zack Godshall, that prepares viewers for the final 10.

Godshall's film, shot in and around New Orleans in May and June of 2006, follows the on-the-job follies and epiphanies of young, sensitive Turner Stull (played by area native Barlow Jacobs, who also co-wrote), an insurance claims adjuster imported by a crass uncle to help out with the boom in business after Katrina. Through Stull's eyes and ears in the field, viewers are exposed to the raw destruction of the Gulf Coast (captured unerringly by cinematographer Daryn DeLuco's documentary-style camerawork) and the many quirky characters (the majority of whom are played by actual residents and nonprofessional actors) that populate the region.

Low and Behold's success revolves largely around the developing relationship between Stull and Nixon (Eddie Rouse), a nightshift worker who finds himself in the inexperienced adjuster's good graces when he helps Stull down from a roof after his construction ladder falls. Down-and-out since Katrina, Nixon is spending his days searching for his kids' lost dog, and in tandem the two provide both a victim's and observer's view of the strife that arises from a seemingly hopeless struggle to recover.

The push and pull of their reluctant friendship provides focus in the film, which at times in the first half feels like it's forcing comedic elements to buoy the lead-heavy images of Orleans and St. Bernard parishes just eight months after the storm. DeLuco's sobering photography, which stands alone as its own artistic statement, has no need for a clever-script crutch, however; at once personal and profoundly affecting, it transcends sensationalistic rabblerousing to tell a truer story than any real or imagined media to emerge from Louisiana since September 2005.

Another highpoint is Rouse, exceptional as the ever-smiling Nixon. His performance stays with you long after the credits have rolled: a vestige of affability beneath what are revealed in the film's devastating final moments to be endless layers of soiled, saddening emotional baggage. It's the damaged soul at the center of Low and Behold, a docudrama only in the sense that it documents the living, breathing drama of the Crescent City's elemental resolve to rebuild. " Noah Bonaparte Pais

The Allen Toussaint Touch

(photo - Allen Toussaint)

Photo by Cheryl Gerber 7 p.m. Sat., Oct. 13

Prytania Theatre

7 p.m. Thu., Oct 18

CAC 'I hate to use the term "legendary,' because it's become so cliché, but he is that," says Paul Simon in The Allen Toussaint Touch, an hourlong documentary speedily produced by Jill Nicholls for the BBC in the months after Katrina. The dapper, reserved Toussaint, of course, has pulled a hat trick of monster proportions on the music industry for the past half-century, racking up revolutionary hits as writer, producer and performer " putting fire on wax while maintaining a public persona that's as tailored and cool as one of his silk pocket squares. He's a legend in more senses of the word than one: Toussaint's a cipher, an opaque man in a business full of brash, up-in-your-face personalities. Because the movie was shot, apparently, mostly in New York and mostly right after the storm, Nicholls had access to an all-star roster of artists who were gathered for the spate of benefit concerts that were taking place post-Katrina. Dr. John, Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas, Elvis Costello and others testify to Toussaint's incredible stamp on popular music.

Beyond the recorded Toussaint, it's the musical man of mystery himself that everyone wants to know about. Does Nicholls get that for us? Kind of " and sideways. What makes The Allen Toussaint Touch more than just a brisk primer on that enigmatic Zelig of rhythm and blues is, simply, the visual attention. Most likely, anyone who's read the exquisitely polite interviews typically offered by Toussaint has heard the anecdotes he revisits here for Nicholls: that 'Ride Your Pony" was the only song he ever intentionally wrote aiming for a hit; that Benny Spellman was convinced it was his own bass vocal on 'Mother-In-Law" that sealed its success; and that he blindsided Irma Thomas with the unrehearsed second verse of 'It's Raining," placing the music on her stand in the middle of recording. Nicholls frames Toussaint in long, close-up shots as he cuts gracefully through crowds on a city street or sits at a donated Steinway in his post-Katrina New York apartment, and it's this patience that provides a few touches of revelation. A sly smile spreads across his usually impassive face when he recounts the distaste with which his classical music-loving mother tolerated his boozy, unshaven boogie-woogie piano mentor, Ernest Penn. There's genuine, private pleasure in his face as he sings an understated take on 'Southern Nights" that's worlds away from the garrulous rocker that gave Glen Campbell a hit. And when he talks about surprising his Army buddies when his composition 'Java," a hip cocktail-jazz number with Dixieland underpinnings came on their barracks radio ('I wouldn't be so crude as to call it racial stereotyping, although they were expecting more straight rhythm and blues," he says), it's with an arch, satisfied expression that hints he's more than a little happy to remain a wild card. In terms of real intimacy, these are crumbs " but to fans who've wrestled with his consistent, almost frustrating demeanor for the past 50 years of his astounding career, they're nuggets of pure gold. "—Alison Fensterstock

Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans

(photo - Fauborg Treme) 5 p.m. & 7 p.m. Sun., Oct. 14

Canal Place Cinema It's rare to hear a local account of the history of jazz that doesn't mention Congo Square and the fact that during colonial times slaves were allowed to gather there, make their own music and express their own cultural heritage through dance and ceremony. Just calling Congo Square by that name is an act of restoration. It had been renamed Beauregard Square in the late 1800s. Its prior history was almost erased.

The intriguing question in Faubourg Treme: The Untold History of Black New Orleans is what happened to the rest of local black history before the Civil War and Reconstruction. How is it that histories of African-Americans before the Civil War leave out the great successes of people in New Orleans?

Faubourg Treme, which begins at North Rampart and extends toward Bayou St. John, was home to a culturally rich community of free people of color before the politics of Reconstruction simplified racial difference in the city and Supreme Court cases like Plessy v. Ferguson rolled back progress, leading to the wholesale disenfranchisement of blacks. Before that, Treme was home to an educated, skilled, multilingual community. The French-language newspaper was owned by blacks and edited by Paul Trevigne (pictured above in a dramatized scene). Faubourg Treme looks at that lost history and the cultural importance of the neighborhood.

'We chose to focus on the small group at the newspaper because they represent hope," says director and native New Orleanian Dawn Logsdon. She and Times-Picayune metro columnist Lolis Eric Elie, who narrates, set out to make a film about the contemporary cultural richness of Treme, primarily focusing on musicians and Mardi Gras custom. But as they delved into their story, they were drawn ever further back in time. Elie had moved into a Treme home, and the craftsman who was working on it turned out to be a descendent of the newspaper editor Trevigne. The continuity of a living neighborhood became the focus.

Screening in the festival as a sneak peak at the end of final editing, the film explores the vibrancy of the Treme community through the paper, jazz and institutions like St. Augustine Church.

Great segments of black New Orleans prospered up until the end of Reconstruction. Louisiana had a black governor and majority black legislature. Progress was turned back by the Plessy v. Ferguson. Homer Plessy was a resident of Treme who was picked for the lightness of his skin to challenge a law requiring that rail cars be segregated. The case established the premise of separate but equal, but in reality, it uprooted any notions of equality.

'People think that it was the dark ages before Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement," says Elie. 'King had predecessors."

While laws presented barriers, politicians failed Treme and black New Orleans in many ways throughout the 20th century. Putting the I-10 over Claiborne Avenue is one prominent example of a move that sent parts of the neighborhood into fast decline.

The final segment of the film deals with Katrina. Elie points out (in an interview) that the same questions of Reconstruction are being revisited. How will schools serve the children? How will voting rights affect the rebuilding of the city?

The film is full of the simple joys of the city, from neighborhood brass-band parades to colorful anecdotes about its history. But clearly, to reach the city's former heights, the film shows that there's more to recover from than just the failure of the levees. " Coviello Random Lunacy: Videos from the Road Less Traveled

(photo — Neutrino_neworleans..) 7 p.m. Sun., Oct. 14

Prytania Theatre Some could call him extraordinary. Others would say 'insane." Even Poppa Neutrino's biographer, New Yorker contributor Alec Wilkinson, who published The Happiest Man in the World with Random House in March, seems more awed than authoritative.

'He has all the characteristics of anyone who's ever built a fortune," Wilkinson says in Random Lunacy: Videos from the Road Less Traveled. 'I have no doubt he could have been a wealthy man. But he wouldn't have wanted that." Poppa Neutrino, who took his name from the subatomic particles that pass undisturbed through matter, seems utterly fixed on his belief that his unorthodox, peripatetic lifestyle is the happy result of tuning into a secret truth that lesser men avoid.

'I was aware that the rent could ruin a man," he says early on in the film, while pushing his mobile 'apartment" " a long plywood box covered with a tarp — around Manhattan.

'He always said he'd live like a bum or live like a king, but nowhere in between," says Todd Londagin, opening the film in voice-over. Londagin " and New Orleans' own Ingrid Lucia " are part of a gaggle of more than five (the movie never counts them all) children from multiple marriages that Poppa Neutrino led through an improbably picaresque, itinerant life that found them busking in Barcelona, joining a Mexican circus and sailing up and down the Mississippi on a raft built from salvaged trash. Actually, several rafts. Often, as an exercise in the perils of attachment to possessions, he'd give the raft away and make the family start from scratch with whatever they could carry.

'On the Road took place in a year, maybe," Wilkinson says with wonderment. 'This is 74 years of these adventures. He makes it look like Jack Kerouac lived at home with his mother and went on the road on the weekend." And amazingly, he videotaped years of the family's wanderings, often interviewing the kids face-to-face, as if preparing for the movie of his life. Using a combination of Poppa Neutrino's collection of home movies interspersed with their own interviews with the family, Random Lunacy's directors wisely let the story " contradictions and all " unfold on its own. When a home video taken from the raft's 1998 transatlantic crossing shows an iceberg gleaming in the sun, just feet from the tenuous-looking craft, the viewer gets a breathtaking rush of vicarious freedom. When earlier videos show 8- and 9-year-old children spotted with grime in the Mexican dirt or sleeping in an empty water tower, the glee is replaced with unease. That duality, apparently, is Poppa Neutrino's overall philosophy: without boundaries comes no safety net, and that's the only worthwhile way to ride. Lucky for those of us with less daring, he got it all on tape. " Fensterstock

Gypsy Caravan

(Photo — gypsy — arne reinhart) photo by Arne Reinhart 9 p.m. Sun. Oct. 14

Prytania Theatre

10 p.m. Tue., Oct. 16

Canal Place Cinema Thirty-five gypsies in five bands, from four countries, in one bus, on a six-week tour across the U.S. and Canada. It almost seems like the latest Christopher Guest parody-of-earnestness mockumentary " 'World Music Mayhem" " but in fact, Gypsy Caravan is a direct and often touching account of one episode in the life of a little-understood group that's been stigmatized in folktales and mythology for dubious things like stealing babies and telling fortunes.

The disparate Roma communities represented in the film all seem to be savvy, world-traveling musicians accustomed to the grind of the road. The interactions that take place in the movie are therefore much more subtle than in a standard primitive-meets-modern narrative. There's Nicolae, who sometimes bows his violin with one broken string knotted across the others. He's the patriarch of a southern Romanian village that he brought electricity to through his earnings from CD sales and touring. Bachu, the flamboyant 'Maharajah," performs in a spangled turban and luxurious mustache and boards a plane in shades and a pilot's cap. Juana and Antonio, flamenco performers, speak Spanish with a Castilian lisp but not Romani (like Yiddish, fluency is fading through the generations). An Indian dancer, an interloper from a different caste, performs astounding acrobatic feats of dance in full female drag. And there's Esme, a lifelong singing superstar in Macedonia, who draws thousands to a benefit concert back home for refugees from Kosovo. In some of the film's weirdest footage, she's shown in black-and-white on an Ed Sullivan Show-esque set, doing a version of the Jerk to traditional Romani music.

The interesting thing to learn from Gypsy Caravan is that, in fact, this tour is about as nomadic as the Roma people get these days. Separated by culture and often by language, they have little commonality outside of the knee-jerk bias they all face in their countries of residence. Even the music is disparate. The only sound that seems traditionally "Gypsy,' the way Westerners would recognize it, comes from the Romanian bands, with their accordions and fiddles. The real story, then " and it's a compelling one " is not how the Gypsies are introduced to America, but how they're introduced to each other. " Fensterstock

click to enlarge Random Lunacy: Videos from the Road Less Traveled
  • Random Lunacy: Videos from the Road Less Traveled
click to enlarge Gypsy Caravan - ARNE REINHART
  • Arne Reinhart
  • Gypsy Caravan
click to enlarge Above the Line: Saving Willie Mae's Scotch House
  • Above the Line: Saving Willie Mae's Scotch House
click to enlarge Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans
  • Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans
click to enlarge Killer of Sheep
  • Killer of Sheep
click to enlarge Low and Behold
  • Low and Behold
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