Courageous Storytelling: Turning the Lens to Disaster Survivors

By Danielle Orange, Digital Content Producer
Posted on October 11, 2017

Fearless documentary filmmaking is about trust: trust in yourself, your crew, your vision. But trust goes both ways. Unlike narrative filmmaking where contracts might stipulate the ground rules of interacting with your talent, bold storytellers of nonfiction need to go one step further and build trust with their participants. The question becomes: what’s the approach? Do you swoop in, bail out, story in tow? Or do you do something riskier and embed yourself amid communities affected by tragedy and pain? How do you use respect and empathy as part of your toolkit? Who better to examine these questions than filmmakers with whom ITVS has partnered. 

The ITVS co-produced Getting Back to Abnormal filmmakers had the guts to set aside their own preconceived notions when heading to post-Katrina New Orleans several years after the disaster. When approaching a story of this magnitude, filmmakers can uniquely capture not only humans recovering but the deep seeded beliefs, small moments, and the connections the community is built on. We asked Louis Alvarez, Andy Kolker, Peter Odabashian, and Paul Stekler to write about how they embedded themselves in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. Although it’s risky to expose a traumatized community, it is also paramount to tell their unabridged stories. 

They collectively offered the following: 

In any national disaster, the first media on the scene are the big national organizations: CNN, The New York Times, the Weather Channel. Within 24 hours, a media narrative has started to form, and usually it gathers steam rapidly, reinforcing itself with every talking head or on-the-scene hurricane reporter. Such narratives are not necessarily inaccurate, but they are often incomplete. Hurricane Harvey’s early narrative appeared to be focused on the self-reliance of Texans and private citizens like the Cajun Navy who sped to the scene and helped out; Hurricane Katrina’s narrative was about government incompetence in the face of heartbreaking developing-world scenes in largely African American neighborhoods of New Orleans.

One of the most important roles independent media-makers can play is to stick around after the national media has largely moved on to other stories, and dive more deeply into people’s lives after a major trauma has occurred. But there are pitfalls to post-disaster filmmaking, and we saw many of them up close in the years following Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans that came afterward. Our film Getting Back to Abnormal was our attempt to offer a fresh perspective on events that had gone through the media wringer, and to make audiences understand a New Orleans mindset that had often been obliterated by outside media, both corporate and indie.

Here are some things we’ve learned about filming in a post-disaster environment:

Beware of imposing your own preconceived political beliefs onto the situation. This was something we saw endlessly post-Katrina: well-meaning, committed, activist filmmakers descending on New Orleans from far away and trying to squeeze the facts on the ground into preconceived notions of race and class that might have made sense in a Chicago or New York but which ignored the baroque complexities and history of New Orleans race relations. That’s why, when we finally made our own Post-Katrina movie, we took that as our topic.

Listen to the locals. This is a corollary to the above. Often you come from a very different cultural background than the people you’re filming, and it should be their voices you privilege. In the case of New Orleans, you didn’t necessarily have to be born into the community, but It would have helped to know that race there is much more complex than just black and white. Any native New Orleanian knew that uptown, wealthy whites had little in common with white working class folks -- “yats” (as in “where you at”). More importantly there was a large social chasm between light skinned Catholic Creole blacks and dark skinned, mostly Baptist African-Americans. If you didn’t understand that, it was nearly impossible to understand race and its impact on all parts of New Orleans.

Finding the right characters is still your primary job as a filmmaker.  The enormity of human suffering and physical damage of disasters doesn’t change the fact that films are driven by characters and their stories, not issues.  The best docs made in the immediate aftermath of Katrina focused on individuals whose stories drove the films’ narratives. The overall context -- government bureaucratic incompetence and larger environmental concerns -- then piggybacked onto those stories. Our film was about race relations and politics after Katrina, and so we set about finding characters whose stories could serve as metaphors for those questions. We found them in white Councilwoman Stacy Head and her African American political aide Barbara Lacen Keller -- and in this opening sequence, we used them to then introduce a short history of race in New Orleans.

Beware of major media narratives. There were many during and after Katrina in New Orleans and they morphed and changed regularly. But some tended to harden in place after a while and often became what people remember regardless of their accuracy. If you were to poll people about what they remember about Katrina (those who remember anything at all) there might be the persistent image of poor, desperate black people being airlifted from roofs (true) or the violence and mayhem in the Superdome (false).  So part of the job of filmmakers is not only to set the record straight, but to understand and explain how and why this phenomenon occurs.

Try not to ignore the complexity of the issues raised.  In the wake of Harvey and Irma, it became de rigeur on progressive social media to label the hurricane a result of global warming and to use it as a club to bash denialists. That approach alone is fine if your goal is to preach to the choir and satisfy only the audience already on your side. But reality is pretty messy. The sprawl of Houston swallowed key wetlands and encourages fossil-fuel consumption, but it also offers working-class and immigrant families inexpensive housing and upward mobility in a way expensive coastal cities don’t.  After Katrina, progressives from across the country organized against the city’s decision to demolish its crime-ridden, neglected old housing projects that thousands called home in favor of more modern compact replacements with extremely strict rules about social behavior and a heavy police presence. It was a classic “everybody’s right and everybody’s wrong” debate, and the better documentaries reflected that conundrum.

What are you adding to the discussion? We read that during the Standing Rock/Dakota Access protests last winter there were something like 83 people on site claiming to be making documentaries - everyone from college students doing class projects to veteran filmmakers with a long-term investment in the issues. What are you doing that’s different? And are you prepared to stick around after better-funded folks with connections to VICE or CNN cross the documentary finish-line first?

In the end, the most important question to ask yourself is why are you there and what you hope an audience will learn from your work.  If you can answer that with passion and you’re prepared for the long haul, then good luck and do good work.


Louis, Andy, Peter, and Paul 

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