Swiss director Michelle Ettlin's Liquid Land presents itself as a documentary about an art project: Dutch artist Kaspar Koenig and Swiss musician Simon Berz visited New Orleans in 2010, fashioned musical instruments from trash and random objects found on the streets, and invited local, experimentally minded musicians to play them in a 10-night series of free-form jam sessions at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center in Central City. All the chatter among participants about the "spirit of discovery" at the heart of improvised music rings true, but the music that emanates from all those found objects falls short of greatness. Sparks only begin to fly when brilliant musicians like cellist Helen Gillet pull traditional instruments out of their cases and bring less spontaneous but far more expressive sounds into the mix.
Not surprisingly, this hourlong film (which debuted locally at the New Orleans Film Festival) quickly develops an agenda beyond experimental music. Liquid Land finds its purpose in the offhand musings of musicians reflecting on the transformation of their creative lives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This is cinematic territory farmed by many but successfully harvested by few. It's impossible to resist the sincerity and insight of local artists like Aurora Nealand, who tells the story of going to music school in Austin, Texas only to return home to New Orleans four weeks later needing to "make sound for people in my community." It's ironic that Liquid Land's musicians bring life to the film mainly while on break from their primary activity. But if there's one thing the people of New Orleans do even better than making music, it's talking a good game. — KEN KORMAN