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April 05, 2008

Full Frame 2008: Two Katrina Films Provide Stark Contrast of Methods and Ethics of Nonfiction Filmmaking

Festival coverage sponsored by IndiePix.

DURHAM, NC -- Friday at the 11th Full Frame Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina has come to a close, with perhaps the most interesting contrast provided by two very different films about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath - Ed Pincus and Lucia Small's THE AXE IN THE ATTIC and Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's TROUBLE THE WATER, which previously this year took the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Much of the contrast was enhanced by the order in which the films were presented, with AXE screening Friday morning and TROUBLE showing in the mid-afternoon, slightly reverse of when the films shot the bulk of their footage, with TROUBLE focused primarily on the two weeks after Katrina struck and AXE zeroing in on a period three months later.  This divergence of chronological focus was but one of the things that differentiated the two films, which I can only imagine might be viewed differently if not seen in such close proximity.

But seeing the films together gave me a distinct perspective, one that I surmise may not be entirely borne out by the experiences of others viewing the films individually.

THE AXE IN THE ATTIC is a unique viewing experience for a number of reasons, not least because it feels like a mash-up between two different films, one a chronicle of those displaced post-Katrina and the other an investigation of documentary ethics when your subjects are more in need of $10 than they are a camera in their face.

This latter point, an often conflicted, on-screen debate between filmmakers Small and Pincus over just how much a filmmaker should aid and comfort one's subjects, has been the subject of some debate since the film premiered at the New York Film Festival last September.  Watching the film today, I thought that perhaps a fore-knowledge of Lucia Small's previous film, MY FATHER, THE GENIUS, in which she also appears on camera, might alleviate some complaints, since to me it seemed that THE AXE IN THE ATTIC was a through-line of Small's nonfiction work and appearance within.  I've not seen Pincus' DIARIES, so I can't comment on the transition between this most recent work and that which he made in the early 1980s, but I was thoroughly intrigued by the discussions that the filmmakers had within the film about ethics - whether to give money to subjects, whether to give assistance to subjects, how much to be present in one's own film - and I really liked how this topic collided with their investigation into the Karina Diaspora.

It was especially relevant when watching TROUBLE THE WATER a couple of hours later.  Whereas AXE delves into the lives of a number of subjects, white and black, TROUBLE primarily focuses on a single black subject - former drug dealer and would-be rapper/musician Kimberly Roberts.  At the heart of the film is Roberts' own footage, camcorder shots of the Ninth Ward as Katrina approaches, hits and devastates.  This footage is, without a doubt, the singular element that makes TROUBLE worth watching, and it calls into question the decision by the filmmakers to give themselves a "film by" title while subjugating Roberts with an "additional camera" credit.

Roberts' footage makes up the bulk of TROUBLE's first act and it's undeniably powerful, particularly as it is intercut with archival news clips of various politicos (from Nagin to Bush) in the lead up and initial aftermath of the storm.   She is, from the start, a tremendous nonfiction character - full of confidence, brio and street smarts.  It's a persona that is surprisingly much more present in her own DIY footage than the less compelling "professional" footage shot for the film.

Having seen AXE earlier in the day, I was struck by other differences in approach between the two films.  Whereas nearly every survivor in AXE is scarred and on the verge of tears, the subjects of TROUBLE are portrayed as hearty survivors, wrong-pathed young adults who are made right by the tragedy.  As Roberts claims in TROUBLE THE WATER, Katrina was a blessing.  It's a sentiment not readily shared by the numerous subjects of AXE.

This disconnected conclusion could lead some - but certainly not all - viewers of TROUBLE to ask whether the film is not in some ways a balm for the guilt of those American's not affected by the tragedy.  Whereas THE AXE IN THE ATTIC filmmakers actively and openly grapple with issues one's of own culpability (either direct or indirect), TROUBLE soothes the conscience by portraying a trio of survivors comparatively unsinged by what has just occurred. 

Perhaps had I not seen the two films practically back to back, the comparisons would not be so startling.  But seeing two women in AXE apply for FEMA assistance followed by a similar scene in TROUBLE, one could not help but be struck by the more complex and profound truths in AXE.  For me, this was a thread that carried throughout the films, with Pincus and Small's wearing its discomforts, sometimes awkwardly, for all to see, while TROUBLE rested on its strong heroine, a woman whose personal journey seemed surprisingly static, given the circumstances.  One couldn't help but wonder what lay just beneath the surface of the performer at the center of TROUBLE.  Might not Roberts have more turmoil beneath her mask than she lets on for the camera?  And if so, why aren't we seeing it?

Further, the two films provide a stark contrast of what happens when two pairs of filmmakers enter into a breaking news story without a clear path as to what they might find.  One wonders what kind of film Deal and Lessin would have made had not a truly compelling subject like Kimberly Roberts (complete with the kind of self-shot footage filmmakers could only dream of) crossed their paths.  One suspects that no matter who Pincus and Small encountered, the frustration, hurt and conflict (between subjects as well as filmmakers) would have found a way to the surface.

More soon from Full Frame 2008 and Durham...


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This is off-topic, but I watched Kurt Cobain About a Son tonight and I just wanted to tell you that it was a great idea perfectly executed. The music was great, the cinematography was great, the editing was great. It was the best tribute imaginable to Kurt Cobain, better than any of the books, better than Last Days, just a wonderful film all around. I look forward to seeing to your next film. Cheers.

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