Festival lacks Katrina docs
January 27, 2007
Mike Shiley is not in front of the audiences at the Sundance Film Festival this week, speaking about his movie in question-and-answer sessions and enjoying the accolades of the festival-goers.
Shiley, who made "Dark Water Rising," a documentary about pets abandoned in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, submitted his film to Sundance and Slamdance but both festivals rejected him.
More than a year after the devastation along the Gulf Coast, when documentaries and feature films would have been expected to arrive on the film-festival circuit, insiders say there are not many independently made movies about the hurricane.
The organizers of Sundance say there were a few submissions about Katrina but none were worthy of the festival. At Slamdance, organizers report a similar trend.
"I risked my life and spent every penny I had on the film," Shiley says. "Yet they turned me down on a form letter."
He says film festivals in New York and Australia accepted "Dark Water Rising," which he labels a "fresh" and "unique" perspective on the hurricane. Shiley, who is from Portland, Ore., and traveled to New Orleans to shoot the movie, accompanied an animal-rescue group as it searched for pets left behind.
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"I thought that was a very good story. People in America, we love our animals," he says, adding, "This was America’s first ever large-scale animal rescue."
The lack of films, especially documentaries, about Katrina in this year’s festivals is a surprise since Sundance is known as one of the top markets for documentaries and the hurricane, the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, would seem to remain a compelling subject for documentary makers.
But there has been little publicity about Katrina documentaries beyond that for "When the Levees Broke," an ambitious study of the aftermath of the hurricane from filmmaker Spike Lee. The four-part documentary aired on HBO.
Sundance frequently receives documentary submissions soon after a major news event, such as the reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the Iraqi war, which has been the subject of a series of festival documentaries.
For the 2007 festival, Sundance received about 800 documentary submissions, with three, including Shiley’s film, concerning Katrina, the festival’s programming director, John Cooper, reports.
" I would have expected 50 — quickly thrown together, grab your camera and go," Cooper says, adding that those sorts of documentaries sometimes are not well made but they "are in the moment. They are usually the first wave."
Cooper says Sundance might be interested in documentaries that provide information that the media did not air during its coverage of the disaster. He says documentaries should delve further into the topic than newscasts.
"You hope to see something that wasn’t on the news," Cooper says. "You just can’t throw together a documentary that looks like a week of coverage. You have to find a story."
Cooper surmises filmmakers might have stayed away from the subject because the media provided extensive coverage. Still, he says, he anticipated some roughly made documentaries to be submitted to Sundance starting for the 2007 festival but says other topics, like the collapse of Enron, did not appear at Sundance immediately.
A short film, called "God Provides," is screening during Sundance and one of its filmmakers, Brian Cassidy, calls it a "documentary in a loose sense." He says he and his filmmaking partner traveled to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi about a week after the hurricane, sleeping in their car.
The filmmakers gathered stories from people in Mississippi but it is not a traditional documentary. In some cases, he says, people talked about the stories of others. The filmmakers did not use actors.
"I imagine there was an abundance of films being made along the lines of what we see on CNN or the news channels," Cassidy says, adding, "There are many different angles and approaches which one can take. I really can’t generalize that."
The recovery in New Orleans no longer leads the national news but the city should still be a desirable place for documentary makers, says Karen Taylor, a communications professor at Tulane University in New Orleans.
"Visually, it’s so striking. You have, right back to back, neighborhoods you see the pretty antebellum architecture next to houses that haven’t been restored," Taylor says. "Everybody has a story. Perhaps one of the difficulties of doing documentaries is everybody’s story is vastly different."
Taylor says the most compelling angle now is the attempt by regular people in New Orleans to fight crime. She says the people there are frustrated with post-Katrina crime and are trying to curb the violence.
Taylor acknowledges, though, that filming in New Orleans remains "exceedingly difficult." Lots of roads and sidewalks are still damaged and power is interrupted frequently, she says.
She says filmmakers in New Orleans are compiling footage and intend to produce documentaries but she is unsure of their themes. She wants more films to be made and says Americans should learn more about the disaster. Filmmakers would be welcomed in New Orleans if they are making movies that could pressure the government, she says.
"The citizens have been the ones to take the lead in trying to do something, given the ineffectiveness of the local government," she says. "It seems like there’s a story that needs to be told: an individual whose been pushed to the breaking point."