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By Bryan Newbury
August 29, 2007 

Americans have a natural inclination for collective grief. This predilection, though it surely exists and is widespread, is antithetical to much in the American character. We will attend the funeral, maybe even, when in Rome, dance to the dirge. Joining together to prevent the condition that causes the grief? That’s not exactly our thing.

Two years ago, we engaged in a national handwringing over the near loss of a city that defies definition. New Orleans, possibly more than any other city in North America, was and is an island unto itself. No doubt the national mourning over much of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was sincere, but the question lingers now—and likely will for decades to come—couldn’t this have been prevented?

It would be unfair to cast too many aspersions on the national character for avoiding issues as dry as infrastructure and egress until they have passed the crisis point. Aside from the example of The Netherlands, it is human nature. That said, no one could blame the people of New Orleans for expressing an allegiance to their own. “Cash can be sent in lieu of flowers, America.”

We are one nation, but all politics remain local. In the same vein, it could be said that all tragedy is personal. 

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath have been the subject of a number of articles, essays, books and films. While it is important to study the public policy aspects of the disaster, as well as the complications faced in rebuilding, it is equally instructive to consider just what the individuals, whether they are displaced or they remained throughout, have experienced.   

Every documentary starts with a question. One might expect Kamp Katrina to begin with questions about buses, infrastructure or racism. Actually, the more appropriate questions to set up the story are: 1. Does any good deed go unpunished?; and, 2. To what extent will people attempt self-improvement, especially when someone is reaching out above and beyond the call? A possible third could be “Hey, honey, remember the time our friend Jim was down on his luck and we let him get his stuff together while staying in the spare bedroom—how did that work out for us?”

Ashley Sabin and David Redmon provide us with an excellent example of the personal side of a collective tragedy. One vexing aspect of the whole issue is that, though New Orleans is unlike any other place, faced with such obstacles, the stories told so deftly in Kamp Katrina could come as easily from Joplin, Missouri as the Big Easy.

This is not to imply for a moment that the people in the film aren’t as different as their home town. If you have any lingering doubt, Kamp’s protagonist, Ms. Pearl, provides you with an instant abnegation. Upon discovering one of her tent city residents in her shower without her consent, Ms. Pearl exclaims, “I don’t want a naked man in my shower with no notice… unless it happens to be John Goodman.” Yes, Bywater is a little different. 

The shower, it turns out, is the least of Pearl’s problems. 

While the city was still reeling from the devastation Katrina wrought, Ms. Pearl and her husband David Cross decided to offer a valuable service to her fellow New Orleanians. Their house was still standing, they had a large yard with running water, and they had been the beneficiaries of benevolence when they weren’t so blessed. Given this, they offered their property up as a tent city for displaced residents. Their conditions are clear: no drugs, no alcohol, no consorting with the neighbors, who are nearly all, shall we say, urban entrepreneurs. No easy task in a city purported to have gin flowing from the fire hydrants. Add to this that the two businesses open in the neighborhood are a convenience store and a bar, and one can foresee the conflict from a mile away.

The people who come, and their problems, are similar to many who occupy impoverished neighborhoods. Doug and Kelley, one of the first couples to show up, are expecting a birth in the midst of all this. They also have issues of domestic strife and drug and alcohol abuse. In this they aren’t alone. Kamp Katrina is packed with harrowing moments. The “kampers” engage in a variety of imbibings, support the local narcotics and loot liquor distributors, and seem intent on engaging in all manner of conflict with their compatriots. It is wise not to judge, really. There but for the grace. Even so, one can easily empathize with David and Pearl. Not only do they take people in, they provide them with work (David runs a construction business, so there is plenty of work to do) and as much counseling as could reasonably be expected. Imagine yourself in a situation where the most welcome face is that of a man preaching apocryphal gospels while escorting his girlfriend, who happens to be Joan of Arc, through the ravaged New Orleans ghettoes. 

By the ninetieth day, the strain is palpable. By Christmas (day 120) one can sense the relief they must feel at the first wave exiting. Eventually, Doug and Kelley leave. Throughout Kamp Katrina, holidays correspond with events serendipitously to the point of mystical. The climax comes, naturally, on Mardi Gras. The situation calls for little in the way of celebration for the troubled couple. After Ash Wednesday, Pearl and David are found cleaning up for their next tenants. Hope springs eternal.

If Kamp Katrina is concerned with the vagaries of daily survival, New Orleans: Music in Exile could best be summed up in the words of David Freedman. “It is about restoring the lines of cultural transmission.”

The latter movie, especially when considered alongside the first, lacks the depth of struggle and conflict one might desire in a film of its kind. No doubt the indigenous music scene is as essential a sustenance as food and water. In most places, that could be couched by saying “until you’re out of food and water.” In New Orleans, it is decidedly a push. 

While it is reasonable to see a deeper level of personal suffering in the common citizens left behind, as opposed to the musicians, writers and broadcasters in Music in Exile, it could be argued that no building or population exodus compares to the loss of a well defined local culture. They weren’t living in a tent city, granted, but how would you enjoy exile to Houston? 

The filming of Music in Exile took place rapidly after Katrina. Even before a timeline is established (which takes quite a while, unfortunately) the viewer can sense a profound angst that places us squarely in the autumn of 2005. Presumably Alex Chilton’s whereabouts were still in doubt, judging from his absence. The urgency of the subject necessitates a corresponding confusion. How long was Eddie Bo “in the country?” How long were Kermit Ruffins and the Rebirth Brass Band in Houston? Are the Iguanas still Austin transplants? 

These questions could be vexing, were it not for the riches the viewer enjoys. Even without the background of these musicians dealing with an unprecedented exodus, who wouldn’t relish the chance to watch interviews and performances by Bo, Ruffins, Rebirth… along with Marcia Ball, Dr. John, Cowboy Mouth, etc.?
Music in Exile does provide an answer. Whether it is Irma Thomas taking stock of the damage to her Lion’s Den, Ruffins blowing New Orleans horn at the Red Cat Jazz Café in Houston, or footage of The Maple Leaf putting on shows with generators and Christmas lights, it was obvious on the second day of September that there was no chance the favorite sons and daughters of New Orleans would give up the city without one hell of a fight. 

As a duo, these two films make for perfect Katrina observance viewing. Sabin and Redmon provide us with an acute portrayal of human decency, as well as the opposing frailties. Mugge gives us a soundtrack and a look at the Brahmins that provide the pulse everyone, from Ray Nagin to Ms. Pearl’s guests, must walk to. Both illustrate the resilience New Orleans and her citizens exhibit before, during and after the greatest natural disaster America has suffered in this young century. 

Maybe flowers aren’t such a bad idea, after all. Mardi Gras is less than 160 days away.


Kamp Katrina
Directed by Ashley Sabin and David Redmon
2007 Carnivalesque Films
Color, 75 minutes

New Orleans: Music in Exile
A film by Robert Mugge
Color, 110 minutes

Ms Pearl on November 16th, 2012 at 9:02 am 

That film about my house wasn’t about the people from my neighborhood or town.Listen to what they themselves say.
I was promised the footage that wasn’t used .I have the e mail to prove this. They came looking for the dirty south and when they didn’t find it they created it.The damage that film did can’t be told.Others with similar projects got help.I got suggestions to get rid of the drug addicts.
I have several hundred films on youtube mymimemspearl that have helped undo some of the damage that film did. I’m starting to get public notice now but I will never recover from the loss of that diary of my life and a historical time that I was promised but never received. I spent 3 years being filmed to recieve this. I didn’t care about the film. I did it in return for something I never got.Just another well placed person came and used and abused us and is now getting paid for it. while I languish in poverty,still helping people
MS Pearl
Kamp Katrina /Buskers bunkhouse

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