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A Whole History of Culture



I had thought at first to do a film about the events leading up to the city’s first post-Katrina Mardi Gras.  The city so desperately needed a healing.

It started with the images of all those people in the Superdome and the Morial convention center on CNN…
And with a statistic – New Orleans is a 70% black city, in a 70% white state.
And with a book – Root Shock – by Mindy Fullilove, which documented the public health costs of urban renewal in Pittsburgh.   Fullilove wrote that when neighborhoods are destroyed, inhabitants suffer a traumatic stress reaction.



In New Orleans, there were so many things lost – houses, cars, heirlooms, photo albums, churches, congregations, friends, support groups, neighborhoods, communities – a whole history of a culture, because no one except the people who lived there had ever bothered much to document what life was like in the Lower Ninth Ward.


It was a place where the building tradesmen had helped each other build each other's homes.


A place so distinct that musicians there composed in a 5/4  time - a complex meter  that squeezes five notes into four beats.


There were so many layers of loss I hardly knew where to begin; the loss so vast, I soon discovered, that no one film could do it justice.  I wanted to do a film about the diaspora - but those who had been displaced no longer lived in Louisiana   - and television does a poor job of showing what isn't there.  Television needs pictures.  So in order to underscore the layers of loss I needed to find someone in New Orleans whose family remained scattered.

For a while, it seemed that every other person in the ruined city was walking around with a camera, as if documenting all those meetings, all that anger and angst, would tell the story.  Most of them were focused on the battle to save public housing, the 5,000 or so apartments that hadn't even flooded, but from which families had been first evacuated when the entire city went off the grid and then essentially evicted when city fathers decided that doing so would get rid of a critical mass of the poor.


But the people in public housing, although hurt the worst, weren't the most important people in this tale.  New Orleans had lost some 80,000 apartments that belonged to small landlords when the levees broke.  That meant that the number of people who rented from families like the Gettridges dwarfed the number in public housing.  If the Gettridges couldn't come back, there would be tens of thousands of others who wouldn't be able to come back either.

I wanted to show how disaster relief separated families, how government policy had kept strong middle class families from going home, how the political culture had worked against them even as it went through a great show of inclusion.  Whether intentional or not, those like the Gettridges – preoccupied with rebuilding their lives – became politically disenfranchised.


In September 2005, New Orleans had been a black political stronghold, with a black mayor, a black city council president, and a majority black council.


Now only the black mayor remains - and in the New Orleanian trifecta of race, he's not black; he's creole. And, some say, the type that could care less about the city, its residents and the city in the long run, as long as his own political future is assured.




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