Doc Talk: Documenting Disasters

when the levees broke

This Doc Talk column was originally published on the now-defunct movie blog Cinematical on January 20, 2010. Many of the links from that time are no longer active, but we’ve attempted to keep as much necessary context intact as possible. 

In Spike Lee‘s documentary When the Levees Broke, musician Wynton Marsalis states that this is a great time in history because it’s a time for us to notice what we’re doing wrong and then fix things. I would argue that this doesn’t separate our time from any other in the millennia since man started documenting his history. We have so rarely, or so slowly learned from the mistakes of our past, but it is at least a hopeful statement at the end of an otherwise morose four hours.

I think this is a great time in history because nonfiction cinema allows for much easier and more accessible ways of communicating these wrongs of humanity through its documentation of historical events. And the proof is in the multitude of films released over the past decade dealing with disasters, many of which, such as the Hurricane Katrina tragedy, were at least partially preventable.

But do documentaries really work for this purpose? And if not, what’s the point of disaster docs? To entertain the destructoporn fetishists who love fictional disaster movies? I hope not. To serve racist moviegoers ridden by white guilt who align themselves with the films’ rescuer figures in the same way they relate to white saviors in fiction films like Avatar and Dances with Wolves? I’ve read a paper that suggests the latter, at least in docs about Katrina, and I almost believe it when I consider the potential films we’ll see about last week’s earthquake in Haiti.

And you know there will be plenty of films about that enormous disaster. It was certainly no surprise for me to learn after only a few days that at least one documentary crew is already busy filming the relief effort down there.

From what I understand of one particular project, which is to be aired next year as part of the Canadian series Inside Disaster, its main purpose is to highlight the work of the Red Cross in the six months following the tragedy. One thing that is interesting about the series is that we can already watch recently shot footage — which may or may not end up in the documentary — online. It’s like getting to see DVD extras a year before you can see the actual film. Before it’s even made, in fact.

You may also want to check out the similarly immediate short-form documentary work from film students at Haiti’s Cine Institute, who have been sharing personal accounts of the earthquake and footage of its destruction on the school’s Vimeo channel. These come recommended by Haitian-American filmmaker Michelange Quay (Eat, for This Is My Body), via GreenCine Daily, and like the Inside Disaster material, we’re exposed to specific stories and shots we aren’t getting from the news channels.

But I wonder when or if we’ll be seeing the Haiti earthquake’s equivalent of When the Levee Breaks. That is, the lengthy documentary that looks at the tragedy more from a broad and hindsight perspective, as in a historical record encompassing everything from the cause of the disaster, to its aftermath, to forecasting the nation’s continued recovery. This event was a natural disaster, but like Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake killed more people than it should have because of human error.

Unfortunately, in terms of appeal for such a documentary in the US, a Haitian version of When the Levee Breaks doesn’t have that controversial “blame the Bush administration” angle of Lee’s film or Michael Moore‘s Fahrenheit 9/11 or Davis Guggenheim‘s An Inconvenient Truth (don’t say it’s not a disaster doc just because it’s primarily a warning of disaster; it does indeed document a slow-moving disaster). But that could be in its favor, as the series or film could instead put the blame on humanity as a whole.

Is it possible for that film to better reach an American audience if a celebrity or well-known filmmaker is involved? Of course. Tons of documentaries have been made about 9/11, the 2004 tsunami, Katrina, and global warming, but most people have only seen those films produced by Moore, Lee, and Al Gore. As we saw at the Golden Globes, enough A-listers are currently providing aid or awareness to the Haiti tragedy that someone might be willing, but how much interest will there be for such a film a year or so down the road, after the trendiness of the relief effort dies down?

Last week incidentally brought word that Lee is beginning work on an expected follow-up to When the Levees Broke, which would revisit many of the people interviewed for the first film to see their status and whereabouts more than four years after the storm. Cinematical’s own Jette Kernion admitted that between Levees, Trouble the Water, the recently released MINE, and other less-seen films, that she’s had about all she can stand of Katrina-related docs. It’s understandable for her, a native of the New Orleans area, yet her subjective, emotionally drained attitude still speaks badly for the purpose of a Levees sequel, which she admits is at least favorable in potentially reminding other viewers that the disaster of Katrina is still not over and that things are not back to normal on the Gulf Coast.

It’s probable that Lee’s return to Louisiana will result in a documentary that further highlights wrongdoing in the aftermath of the storm, which may be necessary, but it also illustrates some of the failure of the first film to adequately communicate the corruption, idiotic bureaucracies and other weaknesses of man in relation to how his faults led to such a tragedy. Similarly, any Levees equivalent for Haiti might show us why the country needed and needs better engineering guidelines and better living conditions overall, but that doesn’t mean it will actually make a difference, completely anyway.

I know, it’s too bad that documentaries aren’t influential enough. But I also wonder if this is the point of disaster documentaries. Are they to be advocates or merely history texts? When the Levees Broke and Fahrenheit 9/11 may be good records of history, whether or not they’re slanted (most history texts are anyway), but it’s important not to accept them as sole documents of their respective disasters, either. Facts and details may often be better suited to non-fiction literature. Meanwhile, every large disaster deserves its more specific records, be they singular uplifting accounts like that of Kimberley Rivers Roberts in Trouble the Water or broader human-interest stories like that of the pet owners in MINE.

Given that it will be many, many years before Haiti is “back to normal” or fully recovered, any nonfiction films that come out of the disaster will be checkbook documentaries. That’s my term for films that invite or inspire post-screening check writing, typically at film festivals, for donations to whatever cause or charity is favored by its makers. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these kinds of films as long as they’re not just commercials for a charity but are also interesting works of cinema.

I’d also say as long as they’re entertaining films, but I don’t know that anyone actually enjoys watching disaster docs (if you do “like” them, Documentary Tube claims to be the place for you). Maybe if they’re narrated or hosted by George Clooney or Sandra Bullock? Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.