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The Reeler Blog

Axe to Grind

By Lisa Rosman

Directors Ed Pincus and Lucia Small, whose new Hurricane Katrina aftermath doc The Axe in the Attic screens at this year's New York Film Festival, harken back to another era of documentary-making; when long shots were invariably accompanied by NPR-style acoustic guitar strumming and not much else, when topics were as worthy and staid as a Nation article and when the widest audience exposure they could reasonably expect was a PBS airing. They didn't know from penguins.

New Orleans activist Malik Rahim surveys the devastation in Ed Pincus and Lucia Small's documentary The Axe in the Attic (Photo: Pincus and Small Films)

But today we inhabit a fake community wrought by media globalism, in which we're constantly aware of disasters elsewhere, albeit in a numb, histrionic way that speaks to our profound dislocation. The questions have become: How do you sympathize without objectifying the (you should pardon the term) victims? How do you help people when not only their plights but they themselves are fundamentally foreign to you? And the question that very few are willing to admit even to themselves: How do you practice humanism when you don't consider everyone to be as human as you, or at least on your level?

The answer when it came to Axe was clearly anathema to these two who'd cut their teeth on fly-on-the-wall filmmaking: place themselves in front of the camera. And it works. Rather than reducing their meditation on the Katrina diaspora into a navel-gazer, the filmmakers' insertion of their white, Northern liberal selves into profoundly disenfranchised Southerners' testimony actually expands the film's relevance and renders it more honest.

Their approach contradicts the Michael Moore-style character-driven doc, however. Pincus and Small essentially render themselves as anti-heroes; between interviews with Katrina refugees, community organizers, preachers, FEMA officials and Army Corps of Engineering reps, the two willingly reveal the cracks in their liberalism. They freak out over the detritus around them, including some of the especially haggard refugees. "It's too overwhelming to see grown men cry regularly in the streets," Pincus complains. And in one excruciating scene, they decide not to give a bus pass to a subject who walks five hours each day to his low-paying job. Rough, even if you respect their journalistic integrity.

Rest assured that, at its core, this film is not about its directors. It's about the annihilation of arguably one of the last vital American communities -- one where people still knew how to hang over a coffee and have a grand ole time; one peopled with generations of survivors reaching back to slavery -- and the lack of a satisfactory U.S. response to that demise. When ex-Black Panther and community organizer Malik Rahim asks: "Where is the public outrage?" he's not referring to the lack of a governmental response. He's referring to the lack of a citizen response only six months after the levees broke. Pincus and Small offer themselves up as sacrificial lambs so audiences can more safely confront their own limitations when it comes to answering that question.

It's to the filmmakers' credit that they come off as more unlikable in the film than in person -- at least at this week's NYFF press conference. At one point, though, Pinkus said: "Everyone down there speaks of God and Jesus. And after a while, I got it. It embarrassed me, but I got it."

"What's 'it?' " I asked him, irritated by what sounded like condescension toward his subjects after all. "Why 'embarrassed'?"

He acknowledged a bias against Christianity borne of his own secular tradition and philosophical study. "Everyone down there kept pointing out how others had it worse than them," he said. "And I'd think, but what about the people who do have it worse then? What about God for them?"

"But the point is to love people in all their complexities -- not to have to clean them up." Including, I understood, his own. He and Small went on to emphasize that they intend to use the film as part of an outreach program in the older tradition of activist filmmaking.

"Someone told us to make sure the people are treated correctly," Small said. Say amen somebody. Just not Pincus, apparently.

Posted at September 28, 2007 8:21 AM

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