Thursday, February 5, 2009

Faubourg Treme

Tonight at 7 CST, PBS airs Faubourg Treme: the Untold Story of Black New Orleans. Whether you're interested in New Orleans or not, the documentary by Lolis Eric Elie and Dawn Logsdon is worth watching because it fills out the outline version of the story of blacks in America - slavery, Reconstruction, Civil Rights movement. Parts of the New Orleans experience took place in many American cities, and even if it didn't, Faubourg Treme suggests that what actually happened to African Americans was more complex than such a simple narrative would suggest.

The one curious factor today is the roll of Hurricane Katrina in the documentary's narrative. Katrina frames the story of Elie moving into the Treme and "investing in his history," he says. The efforts to renovate his house are analogous to the documentary's efforts to reconstruct a meaningful history for a neighborhood that had come to be associated with drugs. Katrina literally interrupted all the processes, and some of the documentary's footage was lost in the post-flood heat and funk.

Katrina as a framing device now serves as a giant neon date stamp on Faubourg Treme. Documentaries on the city shot in 2006 all employed it to some extent, and long, lingering shots of devastation that once seemed so important now feel a part of another consciousness. The flood doesn't stop seeming incomprehensible, and dead bodies left unattended remain brutal reminders of what happened, but such shots now are reminders of the emotionally naked city we were at that time. I think my anxiety about the city being abandoned by the country is written into most of my writing from 2006, and what makes Chris Rose's One Dead in the Attic is that you can tell he's writing out of desperation and grief that he's struggling to get a grip on. Gestures that would seem artlessly big and broad under other circumstances seemed perfectly appropriate, and they were. But those gestures also pin the writing, music and filmmaking to their moment.

Now I see the flood sequences and the hurricane as frame and I don't experience Katrina Exhaustion, but a response to Katrina that wouldn't be made today. Katrina remains an event that divides all of our lives into pre- and post-, and one of the interesting facets of the post-K story is how it settles into our consciousness, and how we incorporate it into our lives. I wonder what people from outside New Orleans will see, and to what extent the pre- and post-Katrina experience is shared by the rest of the country.

1 comment:

Todd R. Brown said...

As someone "outside New Orleans," I'm eager to see the doc when it airs on PBS this weekend on the Left Coast. Can't wait to wing it back to Louisiana!