Thursday, March 22, 2007
You might think it would be impossible to make a happy film about Hurricane Katrina, but the producers of "Hurricane on the Bayou," a 40-minute-long Imax film pitched at children (and gullible adults), give it a game try.
They tell their story -- about life on the Bayou, the loss of wetlands and the impact of that loss on New Orleans when Katrina roared in a year and a half ago -- through the eyes of Amanda Shaw, a teenage fiddle player who gives a wide-eyed personal tour of the musical and natural beauty of the Louisiana swamplands. The movie is filled with music and cameos by famous musicians, including Allen Toussaint, Tab Benoit and Chubby Carrier. And it follows the usual Imax formula: incredible close-ups and lush landscapes, often seen from the air while racing over the earth at dizzying, hypnotic speed.
The narrative is built, one happy cliche at a time, into a vast arch of cliches, until the story of Katrina ceases to be about appalling environmental neglect, or the colossal failure of the federal government to manage a disaster, or the role that dysfunctional politics, racism and poverty have played in the decimation of one of this country's most vibrant cultural centers. (For that movie, see Spike Lee's epic, "When the Levees Broke.")
"Hurricane on the Bayou," opening this week at Smithsonian Imax theaters, simply won't go there, won't place blame, won't hold anyone in particular to account and won't recommend much more than meaningless bromides: To save the wetlands, we must be better stewards of the environment. This is a film about a bucolic landscape, capricious Mother Nature, a little bit of sadness when the inevitable storms hit, and a lot of nice people, cute alligators, adorable kids and the promise of a happy ending. All told, there are scant minutes that deal with harsh realities that might disturb impressionable viewers.
To tease out all the rottenness at the core of this film, you might start pulling at the money threads. Why does a film that seems so insistent on decrying the loss of wetlands end with little more than an anodyne lament and some empty hope? Roll the credits: The film was made with money contributed by Chevron. And Dow Chemical. And Dominion Exploration and Production, a major power company. The film's executive producers, the Audubon Nature Institute, won't say how much money came from industry sources, but the filmmakers argue that less than 8.5 percent came directly from Chevron, Dow and Dominion. More industry money may have come indirectly through the Audubon Institute.
Could the money trail explain the bland, vague tone of this supposedly environmental film?
Absolutely not, says Karyn Noles-Bewley, senior vice president of the Audubon Nature Institute. Audubon, as in the National Audubon Society, is a respected national brand in the environmental world, of course, but not this Audubon. The Audubon Nature Institute that produced "Hurricane on the Bayou" is a nonprofit group that runs public museums in New Orleans. The group also is in the Imax business and operates what it says is the only public golf course to reopen since Katrina hit.
It is an odd organization, described by the former head of the National Wetlands Coalition (nice name, but until disbanded a year ago, it was a major business-sponsored group working to ease regulation of wetlands) as sitting "at the intersection of business and the environment." While the Audubon Nature Institute is no longer part of the industry-sponsored National Wetlands Coalition, it is a "cooperating organization" with America's Wetland Campaign ("lead world sponsor": Shell Oil), which is using corporate money for wetlands restoration.
The nonprofit culture world is so dependent on corporate dollars that it hates being questioned about a conflict of interest. A money trail? Of course not. Self-censorship? No way. Even the question is importunate. And of course you can never trace anything so subtle as tweaks to the tone of a film, or careful avoidance of avenues of inquiry discomfiting to your donors, or donors to your donors. Alas, the people who should set the highest standards -- like the Smithsonian -- often set themselves standards that are lower than those of most politicians when it comes to the appearance of conflict.
So the producers of a film about wetlands loss that describes the destructive impact of canals and channels cut through the bayou -- many of them to explore for gas and oil and for service pipelines and other facilities -- don't delve into the sticky subject of exactly who cut them. Nor is the issue of subsidence, the sinking of land as oil and natural gas is removed, traced to any culprit. The lifestyle of consumption that makes oil companies profitable, that leads to environmental degradation, is not indicted. The disease is described, but not the cause, the cost or the cure. Not that any of those issues would have anything to do with Chevron or Dominion, which the Audubon Institute's Noles-Bewley describes as two companies that "have been good community partners to Audubon and New Orleans."
Shea Penland, director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Science at the University of New Orleans, remembers meeting with the film's director, Greg MacGillivray, at the beginning of the project. That was before Katrina hit, when MacGillivray had been brought on to make a very different film, something about wetlands loss, but also about the vibrancy of Cajun culture, the allure of its music, the beauty of the bayous. "He was there to film the Garden of Eden, and everywhere we went there were oil and gas and production facilities," says Penland, who helped write a major study of the loss of wetlands in Louisiana -- up to 50 percent of which Penland believes can be safely ascribed to the impact of the oil business. The reality of the landscape, says Penland, sobered the director, who was at a loss about the project . . . until Hurricane Katrina hit.
"I don't recall the conversation with Dr. Penland," says MacGillivray, in an e-mail. "But as far as a Garden of Eden concept, we certainly always intended for the film to show the immense bounty of the wetlands." MacGillivray disputed the idea that the film was influenced by those who helped fund it and argued that films like his help "to engage these companies and invite them into the education process."