Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Dogs of Katrina: Mine

When Katrina devastated New Orleans, many volunteers rushed into action—to save stranded animals. While that might sound noble, in many cases the rescuers and the animal shelters that took them in have been less than cooperative in subsequent efforts to reunite the pets with their rightful owners. Frustrations and regrets continue to compound for many New Orleanians in Geralyn Pezanoski’s documentary Mine (trailer here), which airs this Tuesday on most PBS outlets as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

Storm shelters, including the infamous Superdome, refused to accept pets, and neither did most motels. With Katrina bearing down, many New Orleanians with limited means were forced to leave their animals behind. Most assumed the storm would pass and they could return to their homes in a matter of days. Of course, nobody predicted the extent of Katrina’s devastation or the complete breakdown of the state and local governments which would follow. Evidently though, some self-styled rescuers jumped to rather judgmental conclusions about the owners forced to leave their pets behind.

It would be nice if Mine were simply a collection of inspiring animal rescue stories, but the reality is much more complex. As the ironic title suggests, many of the cases of disputed adoptions documented in the film boil down to legalistic questions of property ownership.

Mine focuses on a handful of displaced residents as they search for their beloved dogs, including Victor Marino who lost Max, Jesse Pullins who lost J.J. (short for Jesse Jr.), and Malvin Cavalier, an octogenarian missing his beloved Bandit. All were doting owners who will spend years trying to get them back, with varying degrees of success. Although the film clearly invites audiences to view their conflicts through prisms of race and class, there seems to be another factor at play. Indeed, several times rescuers express the notion that Katrina might have been the “best thing” to happen to some pets.

Pezanoski captures some pretty dramatic scenes including a telling phone call in which a “rescuer” flips out on Pullins. While we do hear from some rescuers, those who participated in the film sound rational and moderate. Notably missing from the film are a few pointed queries directed at the less reasonable rescuers, like the one who had taken J.J. The obvious question not being asked is whether they believe in their heart of hearts that the dogs should have been saved before human beings, which was a very real trade-off faced by many of the former owners profiled in Mine.

Granted, Pezanoski can only talk to those who voluntarily consented to interviews, but the absence of the uncooperative rescuers is conspicuous. Still, Mine is quite an eye-opening look at the myriad of unexpected indignities that continue to bedevil New Orleans residents. By contemporary documentary standards, it is relatively restrained in the cheap shots it takes at President and contemporary America in general (but of course, the dubious performance of Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco go entirely unremarked upon).

There is a lot of bitterness in Mine, but there are some touching moments as well. It definitely an opinionated doc, worth checking out when it airs on Independent Lens this coming Tuesday (2/16 at 10:00 PM on New York’s Thirteen).