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The Reeler Blog

Katrina, On Her Own Terms

Ms. Pearl, the unsinkable subject of Kamp Katrina (Photos: Carnivalesque Films)

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Almost two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, a vital crop of documentaries has emerged to present both impressionistic (South of Ten, God Provides) and pointedly sociological (When the Levees Broke, NO Cross, NO Crown) perspectives on the storm's aftermath. Somewhere between styles is Kamp Katrina, Brooklyn-based directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin's riveting glimpse of an impromptu New Orleans tent community established in the backyard of the disarming, unsinkable local fixture Ms. Pearl. As the city's housing crisis widens, her and her husband's humanitarian hospitality implodes, with drug relapses, domestic abuse and crime fraying the support network established for everyone from pregnant ex-addict Kelly to Joan of Arc devotee Charles to the glass-eyed Tammy.

It's hard to overstate the impact of Kamp Katrina's honesty; fresh off their acclaimed venture Mardi Gras: Made in China, the filmmakers' six-month survey arguably captured the city's wounded spirit more frankly than any of its contemporaries. The result is a disturbing yet essential record screening tonight at MoMA and opening Friday for a two-week engagement at the Pioneer Theater. The Reeler spoke with Redmon about the experience's challenges and rewards.

THE REELER: Post-Katrina New Orleans. September 2005. You two show up on the scene with a couple of cameras. How did you decide where to begin?

DAVID REDMON: We were in New Orleans before the hurricane. We were making a film about Ms. Pearl; in fact, she was in Mardi Gras: Made in China. After that we continued with a character sketch about Ms. Pearl. We left temporarily because we just finished another film in Mexico. That’s when Katrina hit. We came across the border and got a phone call from Miss Pearl, who was in Texas. We met up with her and went back to her house; we were simply going to finish her story. What happened was when she walked into that park as that film opens, that's when she volunteered her house. We had no idea she was going to do that. We were like, "OK, Maybe people are going to show up, maybe they won't." And sure enough, they immediately showed up. So the character sketch turned to the focus on Kamp Katrina.

R: What were Ms. Pearl's conditions for you to shoot in the camp? Did you have live there and contribute to the labors around the house and neighborhood?

DR: Yes, we lived there. We did everything everyone else in the film did, but we just didn't include ourselves in the film. We built fires, obtained food, went to the park, helped gut houses. But we didn't highlight ourselves because the film wasn't about us; we had a choice to be there. They didn't.

R: Your cameras are seemingly everywhere, on everyone. How did you establish a relationship with the subjects to the point that they felt comfortable under that eye, especially under the circumstances?

DR: I think they were almost instantly eager. Or I wouldn’t say "eager" -- they were accepting of us. We told them what we were doing and where we were from. I'm from Texas and grew up in both Texas and Louisiana; Ashley's from Connecticut and grew up in Brooklyn. We told them why we were there, what we were doing and how the film started. And they were like, "OK, cool, no problem." Plus we gave them the cameras to film each other, themselves and me and Ashley as well. We had a hunch that we weren't going to include ourselves in the film, but we gave them the camera just in case. That kind of camaraderie lent itself to trust in both directions.

R: How much of that is actually acquiring trust, though, as opposed to exercising a method to get that extra footage?

DR: It was kind of intuition. One day I was filming Charles -- the Joan of Arc character. He said: "Hey man, why don't I turn that camera on you. You've asked me so many questions; why don't I interview you?" I thought, "Wow, that totally makes sense." I just handed him the camera and he started filming me and a couple other people. And then Ashley and I bought another camera and gave it to the entire camp so they could all share it and film what they wanted to film.

Kamp Katrina filmmakers Ashley Sabin and David Redmon

R: How much of that footage wound up in the finished film?

DR: None of it did. It was just so shaky. We gave them instructions on how to use the camera, but they would rewind and record over things. The heads were dirty. It just didn’t work. They had about three hours of footage, and it could have been phenomenal footage -- intimate access. Even though we slept side-by-side, we didn't have that. With the presence of the camera, you don't share everything.

R: Nevertheless, the living conditions and personalities sharing the camp virtually guaranteed drama, didn't they? When did you know enough was enough?

DR: The first indication of drama is presented in the film when Ms. Pearl and David at both yelling at Rambo about bringing crack into the backyard. Then we thought that this was turning to a direction where we don't really know where it's going to go. We didn't really know what to do, because neither Ashley nor I had really been in a situation like that before. So we asked Kelly off-camera: "You know you're pregnant. We're not here to lecture you or be condescending in any way, but as far as I know, when you smoke crack and cigarettes, that can potentially harm the child." She said yes, she knew that, but if she only smokes once in a while that it won't harm the child. We weren't going to argue with her. She approached it with her own point of view and her own set of knowledge.

There are a lot of things we did that aren't on camera. We broke up fights. We prevented domestic abuse. It's just that we cut the film in a way to make it look like we were filming it when it wasn't happening. It happened frequently.

R: Nathan Lee's Village Voice review called it "verité verging on exploitation."

DR: I haven't read the review. Ashley called me and was pretty outraged by it; she read it to me. The first thing I thought of was that I just wish he was there, or that he could e-mail us or phone us or interview us face-to-face to ask the questions about the issues that he finds exploitive. I don't think we exploited anybody in the film. There's this assumed power that the filmmaker has over the subject, and it's a one-dimensional view of power. And what people don't assume is that people being filmed also various forms of power. And the power operates back and forth. Often times they would bring us to locations and tell us what to film. Other times we were filming but they knew that they were being filmed. The domestic abuse situation, for example, when Charlotte's getting choked? We absolutely intervened and we broke that fight up. But we just don't show it.

R: What is your collaboration like with Ashley? How did you work together on this?

DR: We shoot from two different angles -- that's pretty much the collaborative process. The approach we took in Kamp Katrina was that we asked one interview question the entire duration of staying there, and that was to Kelly -- that's the voiceover you hear at the beginning of the film. That's the one technique we have. We didn't want to approach people and ask them questions. We wanted them to approach us and ask us things. That's one thing that Ashley and I agreed on doing while we were in Kamp Katrina. Most of the time we shot together; other times we'd split up.

R: You and Ashley are self-distributing this, as you did with Mardi Gras: Made in China. There are a lot more options these days for filmmakers in that position. How has it been taking on that kind of added control of the work?

DR: There's benefits and setbacks, but the major setback is that because we do it ourselves, not as many people take our work as legitimate or serious. It doesn't have that brand or logo of ThinkFilm or Sony Pictures Classics or Warner Bros. or anything like that. If people at theaters and cable stations get an e-mail or phone call from us, immediately it's like: "Well, it must not be good because you're doing it yourself." It's poor logic. But the benefit is that we do actually develop relationships with reviewers and people who understand the film and want to show it. Those lines of communication are directly between us and them, and so we can maintain contact with them in the film.

Most of our distribution comes in the form of education. We contact a lot of colleges and conferences where we can speak about domestic abuse or poverty or lack of housing -- staying in tents without infrastructure or resources that can be supplied by a local government. We've had Ms. Pearl show up, we've had Charles show up. The only reason we can't get Kelly to show up is because she's in prison right now. We really try to become interactive so it's not just Ashley and I speaking, but the people in the film can speak on their own terms.

Posted at August 23, 2007 8:37 AM

Comments (2)

Great interview. I was wondering, when I saw the film, about many of the same issues, particularly with regards to the ethical situations. Thanks for this.

I was there Im MS Pearl. The film is good in some ways but not a fair or accurate account of what happened.
The people depicted in the film are not my neighbors.
Our story is still untold and on the cutting room floor.
Its devistating to be so powerless.
MS Pearl
504 048 0166

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