Would you ever have believed we could so quickly forget Katrina? A little more than two years have passed since the storm blew out of the Gulf to hammer the coast and drown New Orleans. Two years and change. And have we forgotten? As a country, yes, we have.
I've spent the last two years directing a documentary, Desert Bayou, that follows some of the survivors of Katrina. I've been living and breathing this story. But I have to ask myself: if I wasn't making the movie, if I wasn't involved in telling the story, would I have forgotten too? Probably.
So many promises were made back then. Every media heavyweight, just about everyone in government from the governor of Louisiana, through all 535 members of Congress, on up to the President of the United States, and millions of regular people, all vowed never to forget, never to rest until the Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans had been made whole once again. Remember how we were never going to abandon those people? Remember how determined we were? We were going to do whatever it took. Whatever it took. And yet today you can compare photos from parts of New Orleans to parts of Haiti, and not be able to tell the difference.
Of course we never much gave a damn about the poor of New Orleans before the storm. Let's be honest. Our devotion to the poor has waned. We've had other things on our minds. The war. Excuse me, the wars. The stock market. American Idol. How about that Sanjaya? I mean, if we had cared before the storm, we wouldn't have found ourselves standing around staring in horror at our TV sets as an American city was swallowed whole by the Gulf of Mexico. If we had cared before the storm we wouldn't have had to keep talking about how much we cared after the storm. And we wouldn't have to feel bad about the way we've sort of moved on from all those bold promises we made two years ago.
The promise I made two years ago was to contribute what I could. I didn't have a lot of money to give to the Red Cross. I wouldn't have had anywhere to put an evacuee family. But, I had cameras, and I had sound equipment, and I had the training to use them. I decided not to try and retell a story that I believed would be told and retold a hundred times, but to focus on a piece of the disaster, open just a window on a few of the people who survived. Soon after the disaster, 600 African-American evacuees were flown, without any warning, without being asked their opinion of the matter, to the whitest place in America, Salt Lake City. Louisiana to Utah. Steamy bayou to freezing desert.
I heard about that flight and thought there,there is a story I can tell. And in telling that story, I'll be one small beam of light in what I expected to be a great spotlight that would shine, unblinking, on New Orleans until New Orleans was made whole. Well, in terms of documentaries, it's Spike Lee's magisterial When the Levees Broke, and my own Desert Bayou.
I'm probably more emotional about this issue than is appropriate. I'm a white guy from Chicago. I had no family in New Orleans. But once I made the decision to make this film I couldn't look away. I got to know people who'd been there. I'll be the first to say that under other circumstances I would probably have moved on to some other concern. But I'm trapped by this story. And I can't let go of it. I don't want us all to forget about it. I still want us to help the people whose lives were shattered by the storm. I still want us to keep all those promises we made. I can't help but call out to my fellow Americans and say, please remember. Please take action. Please help. Don't forget.
Desert Bayou opens Friday, October 5 at City Cinemas Village East.
Alex LeMay received a proclamation from Councilman Weprin at City Hall for the film.