Nearly a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina, a PBS documentary dares to ask “What Would America Be Like Without New Orleans?”
“American Experience: New Orleans,” a two-hour program focusing on the distinctive city’s past and how it relates to its present, was born out of the devastating storm, its director, Stephen Ives, said Tuesday from Dallas.
Ives said soon after the hurricane, his colleagues at “American Experience” discussed how they could contribute to the cause of helping New Orleans, how to provide some historical context for why the city meant so much to America.
“It was really an unthinkable thing that happened,” Ives said. “A major American city had basically been wiped off the map and it had provoked a previously unthinkable question which was ‘What would America be like without New Orleans?’ ”
Ives and his team set out to answer that question from a historical point of view in a project that was put together in a year for timeliness considerations. Most “Experience” pieces take up to a year and a half, he said.
The program weaves past and present through archival footage, photographs and interviews with New Orleans natives and scholars intermingled with footage of the city today, including the lingering aftermath of the destruction. There are also cinema verité-style portraits of New Orleanians including restaurateur Leah Chase and stonemason Teddy Pierre. The people and their history paint a picture of the unprecedented cultural mixing which makes the Big Easy so unique, he said.
Being in New Orleans for filming starting in December 2005 was an experience in itself, he said.
“I sometimes felt like I had been dropped down in a sort of American Chernobyl and was being asked to sort of glean the story of this place from the ruins. And that was a really difficult part of the process because you’d be reading about vibrant neighborhoods that now were anything but vibrant, were haunted and spectral.”
“Experience” camera crews ventured into the most heavily hit areas for some of their present-day footage.
On the positive side, “Experience” tried to capture the unparalleled spirit of the city’s people, with its portraits of Chase rebuilding her landmark restaurant which for a time, she says in the program, was the only place where blacks could dine out; and stonemason Teddy Pierre, who also returned to his beloved city and livelihood. The irreverent Krewe D’Vieux, the first Carnival group to parade after Katrina, and the music and words of jazz musician Irvin Mayfield are also featured.
“The spirit (of the New Orleans people) is absolutely infectious and strong, such an incredible sense of place that people feel. They have been willing to put down the deepest roots in the most unstable soil and that sense of attachment is really palpable.”
Ives, who had only briefly passed through the city several years ago, said he fell in love with New Orleans during his time there. He returned last week for the program’s premiere and to hopefully see some progress since his last visit.
Ives said he hopes viewers come away with a greater appreciation for what New Orleans has given the country.
“And with a keen sense of what a remarkable, rich and multifaceted culture the city has created in a time when so much of America looks soooooo much the same. New Orleans is a place that has not only preserved but celebrated its difference, its sense of its own identity. I think that’s a great and important part of who we are. I think we should recognize how precious and fragile and important that symbol really is.”
I think it's a good thing that some positive light is being shed on New Orleans and her history. So many people are tired of hearing about Katrina... maybe this show will give everyone a taste of the spice that is New Orleans!