Bywater Blues

Bywater Blues

Reviews of Kamp Katrina, The Monastery and Exiled.


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.

So were other residents of Ms. Pearl’s backyard. In time, she also found she was housing drunks, thieves, layabouts, wife beaters and men who would invite themselves into her house unannounced to take a shower, or whatever. The rules of Kamp Katrina were simple but fair: No hard drugs, no fighting, no invasion of privacy. Somehow, a significant number of residents could not live within these limits and had to be told to leave, usually by Cross, who is a forceful man despite having a plate of food perpetually attached to his hands.

If a film about the effects of Hurricane Katrina ought to disturb viewers, then Sabin and Redmon have done the job twice, documenting the victimization of people who were likely enough to victimize themselves, along with anyone else in the vicinity. This choice of subject may cause discomfort among moviegoers who want only the upright and worthy to suffer, and always from afflictions imposed from above. (Such audiences would have squirmed even more if Kamp Katrina‘s characters hadn’t been predominantly white.) But Ms. Pearl and Cross didn’t squirm. Their guests’ behavior pissed them off, but I see no evidence of surprise.

With similar worldliness, Sabin and Redmon refrain from commenting on the jackasseries they recorded, other than to insert a brief text noting that every lawful diversion in Bywater had been shut down, except for a convenience store and a liquor store. Meanwhile, as we see, the crack merchants across the street from Ms. Pearl’s house were open for business. Speaking with the ardor of a convert–like her husband, she is a recovering addict–Ms. Pearl warned her guests away from these dealers. For the camera, she also pointed out the bullet holes in her house, explaining that the drug sellers had not been happy when she and Cross moved in, intruding into their marketplace. It took time, she says, for decent people to re-establish themselves on these blocks.

Kamp Katrina shows the consequences for decent people–as many of them as remained–when these same blocks were left ruined and stinking of death. More to the point: It shows what happened to wayward people, such as those camping out in the yard, when nothing was left to straighten them out. Ms. Pearl and Cross alone, however admirable and street-smart, were not enough–which is why they sent the screw-ups packing without apology, all except for Kelley.

As the film records the dreadful last section of her story, you may notice an unexpected artfulness in Kamp Katrina. Though obviously shot on digital video, on a budget equal to whatever Sabin and Redmon were carrying in their pockets, these scenes (and others) use cutaways among multiple camera setups, giving the action a movielike smoothness. Very often, documentarians achieve this effect only by staging scenes or combining shots that were taken at different times–tricks that are widely thought to be dubious, even though they’ve been used since Nanook of the North. According to Redmon, though, “Asking people to do or repeat scenes of horror is where we draw the ethical line.” The reason he and Sabin seem to have been everywhere, he says, is that each operated a camera, with two others sometimes joining in. Thanks to hard work and nimbleness on location, plus cleverness in the editing room, Kamp Katrina provides you with excellent views of the last of its platoon going to her special hell.

You’re left with the question that hangs over all platoon movies: Was the battle worth the pain? Only Ms. Pearl can answer; and she seems to have no regrets for having tried to help Kelley and the rest. You look at her tough, drawn face and realize she knew what she was getting into. You listen to her final words and know why she made the effort. She scans the wreckage of her neighborhood, bullet holes and all, and says, “You wouldn’t believe how beautiful this used to be.”

After a special screening at the Museum of Modern Art on August 23, Kamp Katrina will run in New York at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater, August 24-September 4.

* * *

Of all the odd tasks people have undertaken in the movies–from setting the speed record for visiting the Louvre to building an opera house in the Amazon jungle–none is stranger than Jørgen Vig’s project in The Monastery. An octogenarian bachelor, long retired from a career as a university librarian and priest, Vig has installed himself in a crumbling, leaky, unheated castle that he bought cheap many years ago in Hesbjerg, far out in the Danish countryside. Now, he thinks, maybe he’ll hand this property to the Moscow Patriarchate so his castle can become the first Russian Orthodox monastery on Danish soil.

It’s all true. Directed and photographed by Pernille Rose Grønkjær, The Monastery is a sly, quiet documentary about Vig’s scheme and how it changes him, once the Patriarchate sends Sister Ambrosija as the head of a small delegation to live in his castle. Did Vig offer the property just to have such companionship? If so, he’d never admit it. Thin, stooped and toothless, with his face entirely circled by a wispy mane of white hair and his oversize eyeglasses propped far down his nose, Vig claims never to have felt love, or to have wanted to feel it. “I suppose I’m deformed in some way,” he says, with the frankness of a curmudgeon for whom all questions are settled. But you can sense his excitement as he cleans up in anticipation of the nuns’ arrival. (He does all the work himself.) And you see how respect, curiosity, gallantry and resentment mingle in him when the much younger Sister Ambrosija walks in and starts giving orders. She is taking charge of two wrecks: the building and Vig.

With its perilous castle in the forest, its creaky old wizard and intrepid heroine from a far-off land, The Monastery has been likened to a fairy tale. Grønkjær herself has made the comparison–but she’s had the wisdom to let those in the audience enter the enchantment gradually, in their own time. A popular selection on the festival circuit, The Monastery begins a US theatrical run on August 29, at Film Forum in New York.

And now for some cinema: The camera gazes down as if from a second-story window, where an anxious woman waits with her baby. Then, without interruption, it floats to street level and skims along the deserted road, to the place where four dangerous strangers have gathered. We see dark glasses, spiked hair, a leather jacket, a raincoat like a cowboy’s duster. A cigar falls in slow motion from one man’s fingers. Curtains billow in the wind. With grim deliberation, two of the killers push open the street door and mount the stairs.

This is just the first three minutes’ worth of Johnnie To’s explosive, outrageous Exiled. A yarn about gangland camaraderie, turf wars, recent Chinese history and a hell of a lot of gold–the usual stuff–Exiled gives you To in knockabout mode, compared with his more brooding films, such as Triad Election. That’s all right. If you’re looking for a real movie, knock here.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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