Spike Lee was right to call his film a “requiem.” His four-part HBO documentary When the Levees Broke brought together a large and mournful chorus to lament the abandonment of New Orleans, from the warnings about Hurricane Katrina that were neglected early on to the dispersal of residents in the storm’s aftermath. To learn about a later stage in the catastrophe, you can turn to Jonathan Demme’s Right to Return project, which he rightly and resonantly describes as being made up of “home movies.” These portraits of people in the Lower Ninth Ward–excerpts of which were broadcast in May on Tavis Smiley’s PBS show–unaffectedly bring to life Katrina survivors who have refused to go into exile and are now trying to rebuild their neighborhood and city.
What we get from Ashley Sabin and David Redmon is more difficult to say. Unlike Lee and Demme, they have given no tag to their documentary Kamp Katrina–no hint about the kind of work they think they’ve made or the spirit in which we might receive it. So, on my own initiative, I will call it an urban platoon movie. Its setting, in the Bywater section of New Orleans, looks like a combat zone. Its characters, who are numerous at first and varied, get picked off by ones and twos until only a couple are left. You settle in with these people and become immersed in the chaos, brutality and surreal humor of their situation, seen close-up and often in fragments. This isn’t the heartening experience of Demme’s film, nor is it a comprehensive picture like Lee’s–but it seems appropriate enough to a war of attrition.
I say you settle in with the characters because that’s just what the filmmakers did. Before Katrina hit, Sabin and Redmon had been working intermittently on a sketch of a Bywater resident called Ms. Pearl, who had figured in Redmon’s documentary Mardi Gras: Made in China. A wiry, middle-aged woman with pigtails and Native American features, as hip in manner as Lord Buckley and as colorful as a Mardi Gras krewe, Ms. Pearl had formed a bond with Sabin and Redmon, one that was close enough for her to phone them after Katrina and explain her new circumstances. So the filmmakers rejoined her and were present, one month after the hurricane, when she visited some volunteers in Washington Square Park and spontaneously offered to house displaced persons in her backyard, which in better days had served as a community garden: “I got a shower and everything back there, with hot and cold running water–hot and cold, baby.”
Fourteen homeless people signed up and were put into tents, with Sabin and Redmon as residents fifteen and sixteen. For the next six months, Redmon has told me, the filmmakers lived practically full-time in Kamp Katrina, sometimes sleeping in the tents and sometimes in the house that Ms. Pearl shares with her husband, David Cross. “Neither of us,” Redmon says, “would ever want to do it again.”
And yet there seems to have been a bustle of optimism in the tent village during its first days. People invented addresses for their new residences (“1313 Dave’s Yard”), enjoyed communal meals and gratefully signed on as laborers with their hosts’ construction company. Ms. Pearl and Cross offered more than a canvas shelter. They provided something to do: a paying job repairing houses wrecked by the hurricane.
Not everyone picked up a hammer. A fellow called Charles devoted himself instead to cleaning the yard and issuing prophecies: “I am at Ground Zero of the Apocalypse, with Joan of Arc as my girlfriend. You don’t think that havin’ an invisible girlfriend gets on my nerves?” Ms. Pearl, believing that helpless, God-infatuated people must be blessed, considered herself to be Charles’s protector. She also took on the task of protecting Kelley, a young woman who was about a month pregnant when she moved into Kamp Katrina. Whenever Kelley had trouble, Ms. Pearl would unfailingly swoop in with sisterly fierceness–and this was remarkable, because Kelley and her husband were crackheads.