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The Axe In The Attic (2007) - Movie Review

The American Diaspora

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The Axe In The Attic (2007) - Movie Review

Lisa and Jimmy Brown, Katrina Survivors

(c) The Axe in the Attic 2007.
The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina caused the largest internal migration in American history, as people fled the floods that washed away entire neighborhoods in New Orleans and surrounding areas. Lives were entirely uprooted. Katrina victims became refugees in their own country, scattered across the United States, relying on family, friends and the kindness of strangers to make temporary homes for themselves and their loved ones. Many families have still not been reunited. The Axe in The Attic is an investigation of the American Diaspora.

The Filmmakers' Calling

News footage of Katrina and subsequent reports that flood evacuees are finding it impossible to return home because of our government's failure to provide necessary aid prompted northern documentary filmmakers Ed Pincus and Lucia Small to take a sixty-day investigative road trip from their homes in New England to hurricane-struck Louisiana to find see for themselves--and for us--what is going on.

En route, Pincus and Small stopped in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Murray (KY) and other towns to which the victims of Katrina's fury had fled, making their temporary dwellings among family, friends and kind strangers, some organized through church or civic groups, who took them in.

The 200-hours of tape Pincus and Small recorded during their journey has been edited into the 110-minute The Axe in The Attic.

The film's title refers to the precaution that people who live in flood risk areas take--keeping an axe handy in the attic-- so they can hack their way to the roof in case rising flood waters trap them under the eaves. That flood victims discuss this practice in the film is a clear indication that the dangers of flooding were known to most people--and that nobody did anything about them.

Pincus and Small's footage shows the unlivable conditions in post-Katrina New Orleans' Lower Ninth and Eighth Wards, Chalmette, Hopedale and other places where violent winds destroyed homes and floods washed away lives.

Commentary on Events

Susan and Ray Cross, Katrina Survivors

(c)The Axe in the Attic 2007

In candid interviews, displaced persons speak about their post-Katrina situations, each rife with a unique set of problems, and what is an almost universal yearning to return home. But, they report, their neighborhoods have not yet been reclaimed or restored to the extent where it is safe for them to do so.

And why? Because, as Pincus and Small repeatedly point out through interviews with authorities, FEMA folk and charity-backed relief workers--and their own voice over and on camera commentary--designated funds have not reached needy recipients in a timely manner.

Actually, filmmakers Pincus and Small are very much a presence in this documentary, which seems to focus on their rather emotional debates about the ethics of filmmaking and their standards for personal conduct during the documentary filmmaking process as it does on the disasters left in the wake of Katrina.

They turn their camera on themselves from the film's beginning to its end, discussing whether or not they should they take action that might influence the positive outcome of the difficult situations they're observing and debating what might constitute exploitation of their vulnerable subjects when probing to get to the truth about their deeply disrupted lives and disturbed psyches?

Time and again, we see Pincus and Small arguing about one thing or another--whether they should give money to people who ask them for it, or even provide a bus pass for a displaced man to ease his getting to and from work every day, for example.

Reaching the Audience

Their debate is honest and it's certainly a valid one for documentary filmmakers--one that ought to and probably does occur whenever a project is being undertaken. But it's a risky choice to present it on screen--especially when it's being viewed in the context of and in contrast to very essential needs of the Katrina victims whose destroyed lives are simultaneously revealed.

Although the filmmakers are clearly serious in their pursuits and well-intentioned, this self reveal seems at times to be self indulgent. It is actually somewhat distracting from the issues--and the people--the film purports to report upon.

On the other hand, watching the filmmakers confront each other about their roles and what they're doing in relation to their subjects in some ways forces viewers to confront themselves about what they've been doing--or not--in response to the human tragedy caused by Katrina.

And the scope of the tragedy is brought home when we see Lisa and Jimmy Brown tour their destroyed home in New Orleans's Eighth Ward, or hear Susan and Joe Cross talk about the flood and their battle with their insurance company and meet Joseph Griffin who is trying to care for his two sons and walks five hours a day to get to his job that pays so little he can't afford a bus pass (and, yes, Mr. Griffin is the subject of Pincus and Small's bus pass debate).

Drawing Your Own Conclusions

Filmmakers Ed Pincus and Lucia Small

(c)The Axe in the Attic 2007
The Axe in the Attic is not an easy film to watch. Witnessing Katrina's physical aftermath is gut-wrenching, hearing hurricane victims' stories is heartbreaking, listening to the filmmakers' ongoing debate is challenging. Still, it is a film well worth watching.

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