Rose-Colored Lens
In Louisiana, Environmental Destruction Never Looked So Pretty

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

In any case, Katrina meant rethinking the project. The original intent had been to look at the impact of a hypothetical killer hurricane, especially given the loss of wetlands, which serve as a natural safety valve, protecting the vulnerable city of New Orleans. And then a real hurricane showed up, and the damage was all too real. But the producers didn't want to go down the path of laying blame. The focus, says Noles-Bewley, was "the unique culture and beauty of our state."

Imax was the ideal format, and one has to wonder how much the form influenced the content. According to the Imax Corp., which is expanding from its roots in "institutional" settings such as museums to tap the big bucks of commercial fare, Imax "stands for the highest-quality, most immersive filmed entertainment."

Immersive it certainly is. With images so big there's nothing to distract your peripheral vision, with tiny holes in the screen to allow the high-powered digital sound system to penetrate straight through, with steep rows of seats giving everyone a perfect view, Imax is a major sensory assault. What the Electric Light Orchestra did for vitiated rock music in the '70s, Imax does for film: It is a big high-powered end-run around a declining art form. Music and scenery -- the sublime -- were once the hallmarks of Imax.

But the sublime has yielded to films such as "Hurricane on the Bayou," which uses too much motion, too many special effects, too many shots of boats racing through the bayous. They needed hurricane footage to give it yet more punch, so they manufactured it in special-effects studios. In press materials, the film's director of photography, Brad Ohlund, gets at the basic aesthetic of Imax when he describes filming the local culture and its festivities: "If only we could also let the audience taste the food with that same IMAX theatre realism!"

Realism isn't really the right word. Imax is hyper-realism, images so voluptuous that they break down the distance between the spectator and the film. They overwhelm rational response, seduce the eyes and neuter the intellect, reducing the viewer to happy cooing at the sheer beauty of it all.

It is the perfect format for a little aesthetic "green washing," the substitution of a nexus of happy things -- beautiful images and a bland statement of environmental concern -- for a serious film about what went wrong, who did it and who should pay to fix it. According to the Audubon Nature Institute, the money from Dow Chemical came in because Dow had been forced by a lawsuit to contribute to environmental projects. The company picked the perfect film at which to throw its penitential dollars.

MacGillivray argues that Imax is not the right format for dealing with "a complex web of environmental issues." He says: "Imax films, by their nature, are generally noncontroversial, apolitical films that play to family audiences in the world's prestigious museums and science centers."

Which is to say that Imax, by its very nature, can't deal with concepts or raise much above the level of eye candy. So why is the Smithsonian showing this film? Why was it screened this week as part of the Environmental Film Festival? On the surface, "Hurricane on the Bayou" seems innocuous enough. Its failings are primarily sins of omission -- no real content, no real message, no real integrity. So perhaps it's not worth holding the Smithsonian to account for a film that feels like a sop to industry.

The Smithsonian, these days, sits at another intersection -- of culture and business. Imax is the perfect cultural product for that intersection -- lush, beautiful, expensive to make, and very popular with audiences who demand that museums entertain them. But the Smithsonian should be above this sort of thing. If the environmental crisis is grave, then our premier museum institution should insist on a more serious Imax product, or get out of the Imax business.

"Hurricane on the Bayou" isn't the worst sin committed down there recently. Its message is superficially pro-environment, and the hearts of the filmmakers may have been in the right place. But it turns one of the pivotal disasters in U.S. history into entertainment. It dilutes a vast tragedy with a narrative little better than a Hollywood feel-good flick, it teaches little, it points no fingers and it demands no change in the viewer. If Katrina can be reduced to corporate-sponsored entertainment, if the Smithsonian embraces that sort of thing, if environmentalists sit through it without any outrage, then there's nothing in America that can't be Imaxed into saccharine meaninglessness.

Next up, Imax: Iraq?

Hurricane on the Bayou (not rated, 40 minutes) can be seen at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History daily at 12:05 p.m. and 2:50 p.m., and at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. For more information go tohttp://www.si.edu/imax/index.htm.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company