Friday, September 28, 2007

Opening Next Week: Desert Bayou

There is an impending bumper crop of Katrina related documentaries in the works. Four had screenings at this year’s IFP marketplace (the most promising I saw was Talkin’ Water). Inevitably that raises the stakes for each film to distinguish itself from the pack. Desert Bayou (trailer here), Alex LeMay’s documentary about a group of Katrina evacuees finding shelter in the unlikely environment of Utah, has interesting moments, but falls short of its ambitions.

Bayou follows a group of NOLA residents, focusing on two particular men who we learn as the film progresses, brought their personal demons with them, compounding the difficulties they face in Katrina’s wake. Right from the start, Bayou wants to frame the story in divisive racial terms: evacuees vs. Utah. The filmmakers are right to decry mistreatment during the evacuation. Surely the New Orleanians should have been told where they were going when they were whisked onto the plane to Salt Lake City. Outrageously, adding indignity to their injuries, they were frisked for contraband as they disembarked from the plane.

However, there is much made of the fact that they were initially housed at the National Guard’s Camp Williams instead of a downtown hotel, offered to imply racism on the part of the people of Utah. Though no holiday to be sure, this complaint seems to be a bit of a stretch. Those displaced by Hurricanes are usually temporarily housed in Red Cross or Salvation Army shelters. The permanent facilities of Camp Williams may have actually been better accommodations than those shelters. Military bases were also designated as shelters in Texas during Hurricane Rita, so the experience was not unique to the Utah evacuees.

One of the intriguing aspects of the film that went under-developed was the relationship between the evacuees and the base commander, Col. Scot Olsen. He seems to be a stereotypical hardnosed military man, whose on-camera explanation of the curfew he established makes no sense whatsoever. However, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who is often highly critical of the handling of the NOLA residents, seems to be quite sincere when he compliments the Colonel for the rapport he developed with his guests. Understanding those relationships better would have helped put the entire Camp Williams interlude into clearer focus.

Too often the film seems to be more interested in scoring cheap points against Utah in general and Mormons in particular. It seems clear that a handful of man-on-the-street interviews were cherry-picked towards this end. Most problematic is the inclusion of a late middle-age woman whose mental grasp of the situation appears questionable. Her statements can hardly be considered indicative of anyone beyond herself, and her inclusion comes off as exploitative.

Bayou recounts the admittedly embarrassing history of the Mormon Church on racial equality. Again though, it overstates things a tad, labeling Joseph Smith an anti-Abolitionist, when, for what it’s worth, his views evidently evolved to Abolitionism. Bayou also makes much of what the narrator calls the “unorthodox doctrines” of the LDS, but again seems to overstate things when belittling their belief in “continuing revelation” through Church prophets, which does not sound so far removed from Catholic belief in Papal Infallibility (and of course, the Catholic Church has a strong presence New Orleans).

There are some moving scenes with the two primary evacuees profiled, that illustrate the impact the past continues to have on the present. One struggles to overcome his history as an ex-con. The other grapples with drug addiction. Both decide to try to build a new life for their families in Utah, evidently with varying degrees of success. It seems the film grudgingly concedes that maybe the people of Utah are not so bad after all, as 100 of the 600 evacuees decide to put down permanent roots there.

Ultimately, there are too many talking heads in Bayou, and not enough dramatic payoffs with its central characters. It makes some very legitimate complaints, but undermines its integrity as a documentary with its heavy-handed biases. Considering how extensive the Katrina filmography will be, Bayou just seems a little slight, like a padded episode of Frontline, but for those who follow events in New Orleans closely, it opens here in New York at the Village East next Friday (10/5).