I did not make it to anywhere near the amount of films I wanted to at the recent Documentary Edge Festival in Wellington. There were various reasons ranging from being too damned busy to just being not damned bothered. The one I did make sure I saw however was Spike Lee's examination of New Orleans 5 years after Hurricane Katrina and more recently, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise is really two two-hour HBO specials, played together and is the follow-up to Lee's When the Levees Broke (which I unfortunately missed at an earlier Documentary Festival). Lee canvasses a wide range of people: going back to folk he talked to in When the Levees Broke, regular folk just trying to get on with their lives, New Orleaneans still displaced from their homes, mayors, the ex-Governor, intellectuals, journalists, actors, emergency workers... You get the idea. And the best thing he does is just let them talk. He does not try and insert himself into proceedings, doesn't ambush people in positions of power or goad anybody. He's just there, occasionally encouraging, occasionally questioning but otherwise, this is just the people of New Orleans and those associated with her recovery.
Lee kicks things off with a suitably angry performance by a spoken word poet and this gives you a real sense of the frustration, anger and broken promises endured by these folk. But Lee isn't just focusing on this: we cut directly to the jubilant build-up to the New Orleans Saints at the Super Bowl - the first time they had ever made it. The sense of joy and anticipation, from the crowd at the stadium to the people crammed into bars is palpable. And when the Saints win... it's an explosion of carnival revelry and just a huge exhalation for a city that has faced a lot in recent times.
But as great as the Super Bowl win is for the city, there are plenty of people still hurting. There are those who still bear the scars of Katrina; physically yes but, more often, emotionally and psychologically too. From projects dwellers who are kicked out to make way for condos, to people who have lost family or their support systems (such as schools). New Orleans seems to be a city whose infrastructure is still struggling to get it back on it's feet. And, as someone describes it in the film, Katrina is like a nuclear bomb that has exploded in the psyche of New Orleans. And this is, of course, when the new Governor decides to shut down the only dedicated mental health facility in the city. There are, sadly, many more tales like this in the film. And they're all told with such passion and honesty by the people involved (or, what you suspect may be honesty. With some of the political figures involved you can just never be sure as to whether they're covering their own asses or not).
The second half (or Part Two if you will) focuses on the wider tragedy of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It's a surprising shock to be reminded, helped by footage of the pipe gushing, that this went on for near to 3 months. This is a large scale environmental disaster that no-one outside of Louisiana seems too concerned about cleaning up. Not only does it directly affect people's lives and livlihoods but it has destroyed (and continues to do so) the wetlands and marshes that are such fertile breeding grounds. The fact that this happened, and that one of the most powerful, wealthiest countries in the world cannot get it's act together enough to help these people out... it's infuriating. This goes beyond thinking that some people just gotta help themselves. It's well and good to do that, but when you're life is destroyed by something entirely outside of your control, you need a little help sometimes.
Lee employs studio and location interviews. The studio interviews tend to suffer the most from... almost a tic; Lee frequently cuts from a frontal close-up on the subject to a profile. Often in mid-sentence and it really only distracts and annoys. But in the larger picture, it really becomes a minor quibble. Because what Lee has assembled here is akin to a patchwork quilt, or a kaledioscope: there is a full-range of people and views & impacts covered with an, at times, remarkably acute focus. This is a, well, it's a huge film that manages to take a lot in in it's 4 hour run-time. And this has made it very hard to write about - unlike a lot of recent documentaries there is no "narrative". This is just people - from artists to parents to activsits to teachers to journalists to emergency workers to mayors to governors to celebrities to Lee himself - trying their best to pick themselves and others up and march on. It is angry, joyous, shameful, disturbing and hopeful. Seek it out.