Saturday, July 10, 2010

Never say never

Under-exposed. The stuff that’s not in the film

That was originally going to be name of my blog -- "under-exposed." But boy was it taken, by every blog system there is. And so now I'm going to post something about these experience, these feelings, I experienced while shooting, kind of aimlessly at first, on the modest streets of St. Bernard, a year after the storm. How it all began. After Katrina, I said to myself that I would never make a film about such a huge event. Hundreds of filmmakers would be heading down there, and I wasn’t going to be one of them. I wasn’t going to enter what was an unmistakable feeding frenzy (albeit a slow one).

Yeah, you guessed it. Never say never. Fast forward three years. I am waist deep in footage about a woman who barely made it through Hurricane Katrina. Mama Sue is the name she goes by, and now entering post production, spanning three years, the film in progress is called “mama sue’s garden.” (there's a website, if you want to learn more about the film,

It’s always interesting to trace your steps from never to never say never. I started out with a cleaver volunteering for ten days with a small, funky organization – now defunct – cutting onions and making sandwiches for a community kitchen. With a lot of enthusiastic support from the young folk who were running Emergency Communities, I’d packed my camera in the trunk, and in the evenings, offered people – Katrina people – the chance to record their stories. What everyone said they missed more than anything, more than their homes, cars, flatware was their photographic and film record of themselves and their families. Finding a salvageable photograph of a wedding, or a legible diary, would bring tears of joy to their owners.

Would people want to talk to this New Yorker with her Northern ways? One weathered gentleman -- who looked as though he’s spent more days on a boat with a line out for catfish – asked whether I were a psychologist. A lot of shrinks had come down, and so here were these fishermen and hunters, carpenters and oil rig workers chowing down on the food we'd prepared -- suddenly sophisticated about this urban and urbane avocation. And the sense I got was that they didn't see much use. But, to my surprise, a couple of people, at the appointed hour, peered into the lounge off the dining room where I’d set up shop and … entered.

One of them was Susan Veronica Boutwell LaGrange, aka Mama Sue of course, accompanied by her teenage daughter, April. Both talked to my camera for two hours and asked if they could return the next day. I said yes.

Five months later, I'd cleared the decks of work, assured my husband I loved him, and drove my car down to this place and tried to insinuate myself into the abnormal rhythms of a jimmy rigged society of volunteers and weary residents, of ruin, of illness, and poverty, and the sound of boats calling from the Mississippi, crawfish Fridays, which I never got used to. Come Friday evening, lots of homes would religiously drag a large collapsible table out into their backyard, put up a huge pot of seasoned water -- everyone used the identical seasoning that came in a box. damn, what's that box's name? - and boil hundreds of these little crustaceans. You didn't have to be invited. Just walk up to any table with its pyramid of crawfish, say "hi" and pull one off the pile, laid without any fanfare directly on the table. Have you ever pulled the head off a crawfish and sucked out the innards?

And the best thing of all, though -- I know I've said this before, but I continue to miss it -- the way total strangers wished me a good morning. Occasionally, to be able to feel better about myself, I toted a hammer. I also ran a documentary workshop, but more and more I wound up at Mama Sue’s colorful home -- pestering her as she went about her daily activities, and, was gratefully amazed when she handed me the key to the workings of her mind..

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