The title of "The Axe in the Attic," the documentary that launches the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts tonight, refers to a peculiar habit many New Orleans residents picked up over the years. They would keep a hatchet up on the top floor of their house, along with a barrel of fresh water and provisions, so that when the levees broke and the floods came they could chop their way onto their roof and await rescue.
The title's also a metaphor for the sharp, hard lessons Hurricane Katrina has forced upon us: that we're powerless before natural disaster, that our government can be staggeringly inept, and that the American underclass both exists and is in worsening straits. The events of August and September 2005 hacked these notions to the forefront of our consciousness. Lucia Small's and Ed Pincus's anxious, deceptively unfocused documentary wants to keep them there.
The directors - she made 2002's fine "My Father, the Genius," he's a renowned film teacher and latter-day farmer going behind the camera for the first time in decades - were so appalled by the Katrina news footage that they packed their equipment and embarked on a two-month journey to New Orleans. On the way, they visited the dispossessed: a Ninth Ward family living with relatives in Pittsburgh; a single mom seeking a new life in Cincinnati, a 600-trailer FEMA refugee camp cheerily called "Renaissance Village."
To a man, woman, and child, these people are stunned. It's less than six months after the disaster, and the suddenness with which their lives have been erased, coupled with the epic callousness of the federal government, renders them strangers in their own country. Before, we'd simply pretended these people weren't there. Now, it seems, we're trying to obliterate them with Kafkaesque indifference.
As is the fashion, "The Axe in the Attic" turns its camera on its own makers, which at first seems the height of self-absorption. Who cares about a pair of well-meaning Yankees in the face of such upheaval? If the directors can't even understand what some New Orleans residents are saying to them, what can they bring to the table in the first place?
As "Axe" unreels, though, we begin to understand: The film's about rediscovering our common humanity - pushing through the flat screen of TV footage to connect with the Katrina victims as individuals. Some of the moral dilemmas the filmmakers face are eerie, micro-size versions of the greater national response. Should Small give money to her subjects? Is Pincus's objective stance - he feels a documentarian should never get involved - a heartless pose? What do we owe people, anyway, and why? Because they're fellow Americans? Because they're humans?
Such questions are painfully sharpened by the stories we hear. When a young woman recalls her boyfriend wading into the floodwaters to shake a carpet of red ants off the drowned body of an infant, we're beyond matters of class and race. One of the government clean-up workers blithely argues that the death toll in the Indonesian tsunami was far higher and we don't hear them complaining, but he proves his own point: We don't hear them because the numbers let us shut them out.
The film's true subject is the state of being overwhelmed - by water, by emotions, by numbers, by bureaucracy. Politics exist here (Bush is righteously bashed, obviously, and there are house-building activists whose rhetoric is fiery), but ultimately they're secondary to the need for help and the urge to provide it. To be helped, you need to be seen and heard. "The Axe in the Attic" watches and listens and wonders if that's remotely enough.