When the Levees Broke
by Jay Dixit, special to the San Francisco Chronicle
The people who have met him think otherwise—as do most people who’ve seen his movies, scorching commentaries on racial tensions in this country. Chris Rock has called him “the maddest black man in America.” New York magazine called him “the angriest auteur.” Even “Spike” is a nickname given to him by his mother for being difficult.
Few could fail to feel the anger that smolders at the core of his latest project, “When the Levees Broke,” a four-part documentary about New Orleans. The movie—his fourth documentary—examines the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, cataloging the human toll, indicting the governmental response, and giving voice to the men and women who lost their loved ones. The Chronicle’s Jay Dixit spoke to Mr. Lee about what led to the creation of his latest project.
Where were you when Hurricane Katrina hit, and what was going through your mind as you saw those images?
I was in Venice, Italy, for the Venice Film Festival. And it was just hard for me to believe that these images were happening in America. I was angry. Because as the days went on, I was like, “Where’s the federal government?” I was being grilled by the European press. And they were asking me, “How could this happen in your country?” These images looked like they were coming from Africa, not the United States of America, the almighty power, world power, superpower.
How did that make you feel as an American?
I was ashamed. I was ashamed of the administration of this country, that they were literally leaving people hanging, dangling in the wind.
You have a reputation for making movies that address race. Is that why you got involved with this project?
No. Reputation and what’s real are two different things. It was evident to me early on that this is not just about race. This is about class, too.
So did you take it on because race and class are things you deal with in your movies, and this was a way you could address them, lay bare some of these issues?
No, that’s not really the reason. I knew this was going to be a historical moment in American history, and I wanted to document it. Of course race and class is part of that. But that wasn’t the impetus for me doing this thing.
When did you actually arrive in New Orleans, and what was it like when you got there?
We stepped foot in New Orleans the day after Thanksgiving and even seeing stuff on television, seeing pictures in newspapers and magazines did not prepare me for the devastation. The scale. It’s hard to get scale on TV and in photographs.
How do you see what happened in New Orleans—and the federal government’s response—within the broader context of the history of African Americans?
It was not on the agenda. It was not a priority.
Do you think films with a message make a difference—in the short term or cumulatively?
Depends on the film, depends on the time. I remember this film “The Thin Blue Line.” (Director) [Errol Morris got a guy off death row. And when I saw “Fahrenheit 9/11,” I thought for sure there’s no way in the world Bush would be able to win after this film. And I was wrong. So you never know.
Did you have a model in mind when you were making this film?
No model. I like Errol Morris, I like Michael Moore too, but we didn’t have those guys in mind. We weren’t trying to model after anybody, we were just trying to tell the story. That was the most important thing. Michael Moore uses narration. Michael Moore puts himself in front of the camera. We don’t do that.
Tell me about that choice. Why is it that you don’t appear? Why is it that you don’t have voiceover?
Don’t like it. It’s just a stylistic choice. I’m not saying one’s right and one’s wrong. For me, aesthetically and stylistically, I don’t need to be in front of the camera. And I don’t want to have the narration tell people what to think. I just want to have the people tell their stories.
What was the story that most surprised you in filming this movie?
Everything was a surprise. I went down there to be surprised, I went down there to learn, I went down there to document the story and put it together.
Did you feel like there were parallels between shooting this movie after Hurricane Katrina and shooting “25th Hour” after 9/11?
No, that never entered my mind. “25th Hour” was fiction. Edward Norton did not lose his mother, did not lose his daughter.
Do you think the errors and mismanagement in New Orleans have been adequately redressed?
If it was up to me, somebody’d be in prison. But it’s not up to me.
Give me somebody. I know I’m being symbolic, but still. Because what happened there was a criminal act, and people lost loved ones because of the incompetence of the Army Corps of Engineers. That brought about the devastation, and not Hurricane Katrina.
Are you making a political statement?
How could politics not be part of this? I don’t understand that question. How could politics not be part of that? I think it was a political decision that they showed up five days later. I think it was a political decision that Bush chose to fly over instead of putting his feet on the ground, so how could politics not be a part of this?
Why do you think that happened?
I think you pay attention to things you care about. You pay attention to things that have a priority. Things that aren’t a priority, that aren’t on your agenda, you don’t deal with.
What are you going to take away from this experience?
I met a bunch of great people and we’ll be friends forever.
Were there stories from this that you may want to tell in the future as a fiction film?
I can’t say that. I’m just happy I was given the chance to do this as a documentary. I felt that was the right choice, to do this as a documentary, not a narrative.
Why did you want to do this movie as a documentary rather than a narrative?
Why should I get an actor to fake playing losing their 5-year-old daughter when you could have the real person? I don’t understand that.
What in making this movie struck you about ordinary people?
I have the most respect for ordinary people. So it was my duty as a filmmaker to just show who these people are that are the backbone of the country. We wanted to get their voice.
Were people more open with you because they knew your name and know the credibility you have as an African American director?
Oh, that helped me very much. People were very open to speaking to me. Maybe ’cause they’ve seen my films, they know who I am, they respect my work, so they were very candid and very open, discussing very difficult things.
How did you feel asking people to talk about these things that were so painful?
It’s a very hard thing to do. I did all the interviews. It’s something I got experience on doing “4 Little Girls” where I had to ask those parents about their children who died in a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama back in 1963. But you gotta do it. You gotta do it.
First published in the San Francisco Chronicle. Source: http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/WHEN-THE-LEVEES-BROKE-Sense-of-shame-2490802.php