A living-room sofa balanced on the roof of a truck; a school bus stopped by a massive barge; a pair of ranch-style homes entwined. Startling physical juxtapositions abound in The Axe in the Attic, the new documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by Ed Pincus and Lucia Small, contributing to what is one of the most challenging and unsettling American films of the year. Though the chaos can make rebuilding seem impossible, the film introduces people struggling gamely to reconstruct their lives against devastating odds. They welcome the filmmakers with open arms, open homes, and open tears—their dignity, humour, and hospitality improbably intact.
No one is more surprised by this flood of honesty than Pincus and Small themselves, who acknowledge their subjects’ generosity with candour of their own. In doing so, they take a daringly personal and experimental approach to the material, confounding traditional expectations of a political documentary. The film is not primarily about facts and figures—although those do have a place here. (Largely unreported, for example, is the revelation that a million gallons of oil from a local refinery escaped during the storm, adding one of the worst oil spills in American history to the toxicity of Katrina’s rising tide.) But the strength of The Axe in the Attic lies in its intimacy, both in the moving, articulate interviews with hurricane survivors, and in the directors’ unusual use of first person “meta” perspectives. Together, these bring the reality of Katrina uncomfortably close to home.
Within the documentary form, “meta” perspectives range from the provocative political work of Michael Moore to the extravagantly personal films of Ross McElwee, Pincus’ former student at Harvard (where McElwee now teaches). For these filmmakers, the first-person choice is a natural: by acknowledging their position explicitly rather than implicitly, they can structure viewers’ experiences with ready points of entry and identification. (Garnering personal publicity is an added bonus.)
Unlike most directors, however, our two surrogates in The Axe in the Attic often disagree. “Me and my dad are clashing; me and Bubby are clashing; me and Ray are crashing,” says one interviewee of Katrina’s stress on her relationships; she could be talking about the relationship between the filmmakers as they struggle to reconcile amorphous responsibilities with divergent opinions, sensibilities, and goals.
Already friends and colleagues when the storm hit, Pincus and Small were moved by the news coverage of Katrina to travel south, documenting the experiences of locals displaced by the hurricane, as well as their trip itself. In the film, the pair step awkwardly in front of the camera in a series of carefully chosen, brutally honest, and largely unflattering scenes: When they fret about whether to give money to their subjects, they let themselves appear petty and cheap; when they allow one rebellious subject to turn the camera on them and answer his first question—“Have y’all had intercourse yet?”—they include yet another outrageous embarrassment.
Why do Pincus and Small subject themselves to this level of scrutiny? “You stop any man on the street and you talk to him, and he’ll be crying in five minutes,” Pincus muses as he makes coffee one morning in their rented local flat. “I’ve never seen anything like that…not at funerals or anything!” The personal scenes are an earnest attempt to repay the gifts of openness and humility that their subjects so freely offer. By grappling with the inherent privilege of their position, the filmmakers also prevent it from paralyzing them. Small’s film My Father, the Genius (2002) was similar in its emotional nakedness; for Pincus, who documented Southern civil rights conflict in Black Natchez (1967) before turning the camera on himself for Diaries (1982), unmasking the storyteller’s identity—especially if the story is historical or political—is an act of the utmost ethical importance.
Paradoxically, The Axe in the Attic’s meta-conflict also provides surprise and levity. When Small films the leader of a group of relief volunteers, she does so against Pincus’ wishes, and without his assistance. “Was it any good?” he finally asks when she returns, putting aside his ego and getting down to brass tacks. “It actually was good,” she replies thoughtfully. “I mean, initially it wasn’t so good…but he said some pretty interesting things.” This startling exchange drew laughter from the crowd with an absurdist joke: it asked viewers to assess the strength of footage they had just seen.
Reality television, online video blogs, and first-person action video games are meta- documentary’s direct descendents, all seeming to place the viewer in the driver’s seat. But although The Axe in the Attic is neither sermon nor political screed, by its very nature it reveals the fantastical, grotesque side to popular manufactured “realities.” In filming interviews with hurricane survivors trying to secure real food, clothing, and shelter, the film inadvertently evokes the codes of popular reality programs: gourmet cooking shows, remodeling mansions, and fake survival scenarios. (The film’s title refers to a desperate home-style flood precaution popularized in New Orleans by Hurricane Bessie in 1965.)
When done well, the “meta” technique can convey so much immediacy, intimacy, and credibility that fake first-person has become a cinematic genre all its own. Perhaps the film most evoked by The Axe in the Attic is The Blair Witch Project (1999): In both the “horror film” and the “political documentary,” first-person camerawork records unravelling relationships, while convincing cinematography and naturalistic performances collapse the boundary between the real and the unreal. The shock of Blair Witch derives from the possibility that you could be watching actual found-footage from a trip gone awry…even though you are perfectly safe.
Viewers have none of that reassurance in The Axe in the Attic, a real-life horror film that confronts our roles and responsibilities head on. Not only are our filmic stand-ins poor, scared, and quarreling, but the context of seeing it today, when the tragedy continues to swell, forces us into a difficult position: Sufficiently moved viewers might decide to travel down to New Orleans and try to help, too. But even if we made that commitment, we might emerge more confused, frightened, and disturbed than before—like the filmmakers themselves. There’s no safety zone, no distance, and no way off the hook.
Thus, the film’s real achievement—and what makes watching it so thorny—is the collapse of our final safeguard, the fourth wall. In the absence of a protective fictional framework, pressing rhetorical questions rush in: “What does it mean to be a filmmaker, citizen, or most immediately, spectator? Where are the boundaries between these roles?” Impossible to answer, the film’s complex underlying questions give it a queasy relevance with implications far beyond this particular tragedy.
“I see the rest of the world is going through a lot of tragedy too, with war, tsunamis—I know we’re not alone,” says a Native American man in a white construction suit, at work on a house dripping with mold. Elsewhere, in a rainy trailer park, a woman’s downcast eyes hold all the sadness in the world. “Nobody knows what the future has in store of us,” she tells Small. “It’s hard, miss.” After a pause, she concludes, “Thank you.” In the end, bearing witness is the only gift the filmmakers can offer in return for a five-star New Orleans welcome.