The discovery of a severed foot after a storage unit auction, a warm-hearted but volatile French chef, and the redevelopment of New Orleans after Katrina were just a few of the disparate themes drawn together in the debut of the True Orleans Documentary Film Festival, which took place last month at UNO.
Produced by Angela Catalano and Travis Bird through their non- profit, Shotgun Cinema, the festival was an attempt to raise the profile of the nonfiction form in New Orleans. According to Catalano, the idea for the festival “was conceived in a van,” during a 16-hour ride back to New Orleans after a long stint doing programming and projection for film festivals across the country. While Shotgun Cinema has been responsible for hosting screenings throughout the city, True Orleans was the first of that scale and they were determined to bring a new kind of film festival to the city. “Not a lot of documentaries get shown here, even though we have so many documentary filmmakers, along with a lot of radio work, which is high level and really important. We wanted to bring in films which may not have otherwise come to New Orleans, as well as showcase local practitioners and bring them together with audiences to talk about the impact of art and journalism, and how you share a nonfiction story.”
The films selected were all notable for their depth, with an emotional range spanning from poignant to agonizing. King Georges, the character study of the French chef and restaurateur Georges Perrier, falls into the former category. At times his kitchen antics approach caricature, as he shrieks over a scarcely-charred galette, or sneaks extra cups of heavy cream into a sauce under the reproachful eye of his protégé. However, following his restaurant—Philadelphia’s Le Bec- Fin, once considered the very finest in haute cuisine—down its descent towards obscurity and Perrier’s subsequent reluctance to let go, provides a thoughtful window into lifelong perfectionism. Land of Opportunity, a film which examines the troubling process of post-storm development in New Orleans, falls more in the agony category. Its subjects are long- time New Orleans residents, a pre- adolescent evacuee, and a Brazilian illegal immigrant brought in to rebuild the Superdome, as they face the personal and brutal bureaucratic challenges of the flood’s aftermath. In spite of its intense depiction of post-Katrina wrongdoing, the subtle and observant approach of filmmaker Luisa Dantas, as well as the relevance of city development within the current political climate, made Land of Opportunity both timely and well worth watching, even for the Katrina- fatigued.
While most of the other films also reached the high end of the emotional register—from the suspense of (T)error, which gives audience members unprecedented access to an FBI counterterrorism operation, to the gruesome reality of The Look of Silence, which explores the psychological aftermath of mass government killings in Indonesia—a 75-minute collection of short films provided welcome comic relief. With the exception of an excruciatingly dull experimental film set in Gaza, the short films were quirky and informative and demonstrated the full potency of the short form. This is especially true of The Chaperone, a fun multimedia retelling of a high school teacher’s heroic triumph during a biker gang ’s violent intrusion on a middle school dance.
Although the documentaries alone were worth the trek to the Lakefront, the panels were in many ways the most exciting part of the festival. Since radio programs and documentary films are more often evaluated by their content than the creative decisions of their directors, this was a rare opportunity to peer into the process of producing nonfiction. In the panel titled Art vs. Journalism, WWNO radio producer Laine Kaplan-Levenson talked about balancing professional boundaries with interpersonal connections in a job which requires a subject’s trust. Should a journalist be held accountable only to the story, or does delving into a subject’s life and reality carry its own responsibilities? To tell a good story, is it necessary to like a subject? Panelists Angela Tucker and Bill Ross agreed that while they might admire films about despicable subjects, in their minds, life is too short and filmmaking too long to spend that much time observing someone they don’t like.
During the Saturday afternoon panel on legal and ethical issues in nonfiction, moderated by Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton, panelists addressed the costs and benefits of shooting first and seeking legal advice later. WWNO reporter Kate Richardson spoke about getting into the crosshairs of big business with her story on the sale of film tax credits, and Bunton shared his legal perspective on the antics of filmmakers Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe of (T)error, who spent the entire duration of the film’s production in a legal gray zone. Trailing an FBI informant who engaged in ethically questionable practices to apprehend a terrorism suspect (which Sutcliffe caught on camera) put them directly in the lion’s mouth of the FBI. Both Bunton and the filmmakers seemed to agree that sometimes the law serves as a deterrent to telling the truth. In that instance, how much should a filmmaker put on the line?
Looking at questions of professional and personal risk-taking in nonfiction storytelling brings up one of the most important themes of the festival, which is the societal impact of the truth. When documentary filmmakers and journalists train their eyes on subject matter which is often passed over by everyday citizens, they deliver to the public information that can be difficult to receive, and the public has been known to shoot the messenger. During one of the panels, a representative of the New Orleans Tribune mentioned that brutal honesty in journalism more often than not loses advertisers. Even those who are inspired by the content to act can feel quickly paralysed. For this reason, the effort taken by Angela Catalano and Travis Bird to ensure that in addition to high quality content, audiences would be able to engage with the issues along with the people who seek out the story made the debut of True Orleans useful and unique. Those who braved the heat to participate in the festival entered a community of people working together, behind the camera and in the theater, to better understand the world around us.
For more info on the True Orleans Film Festival, check out true-orleans.org