Skip navigation

Spike Lee got himself a strange job here: it is surely not a merely technical task to do a documentary such as "When the Levees Broke", but there is a certain amount of just handling things to it: the footage needs to be found and screened, the people need to be found and interviewed, and then the whole truckload of material needs to get cut down to a format appropriate for the HBO screen (which, you have to admit, is a larger screen than you usually get for tv documentaries). If you are lucky, you also find a local musician to add some sad tunes and a personal story. I have to admit, that despite the fact that every factual statement has been repeated too often, and despite the rather tacky use of staccato-cut repetitions of certain sentences ("there was an explosion"), I enjoyed watching the film, mainly because it delivered information that I previously did not have. I only very occasionally got news at the time the levees broke in 2005, and from the distant perspective, it was hard to understand what the big deal about it was: a storm, broken levees, high waters, people escaping, some dying. This is a story that happens all over the world every single day. What struck me when seeing the film was not the size of the catastrophe (to be honest: I think this was something guaranteed to happen some day when you build a city where they built New Orleans). But I think I might have gotten behind the reason why the Americans consider this to be a major national desaster instead of just another nature-inflicted catastrophe. Of course, there is New Orleans itself as a symbol of the US South’s way of living, apparently very much detached from what’s going on in the rest of the country, and not just since yesterday. The way the people speak about "them" in the rest of the country, the way they see the offshore oil fields to be their own property rather than "American" is quite telling. I am sure it is (or was) a very charming place, but one reason for this charm may be this very detachment. The very throrough destruction of a very charming place with its very distinguishable folklore is surely one reason for the shock (I reckon a smilar destruction happening to some city in Virginia or South Dakota would not have stirred so many emotions).

More importantly I think: there is this amazing level of dislike and distrust Americans (and the people in the film) show with respect to their government. There is a striking discrepancy between this distrust and the very high level and quality of help they expect of this same government at the same time. And there is the deep disappointment when this help does not come in. Which is odd, as they didn’t trust their government to begin with… This looks and feels like a really wretched relationship.

So I really do have to say that (counter to most other opinions that I heard or read) I think the film is too long, and I also think that it never finds its true story. I would not hesitate to blame this on Lee’s lack in experience as a director of documentaries, I am just a bit surprised that HBO producers did not help him out of it. If not for the huhe emotions boiling in New Orleans, I think the US audiences would have been rather disappointed, too. As it is, this does not matter, of course, and at the end of the day, it was quite interesting to watch.

And did I not recently wonder what the hell Harry Belafonte was doing on the "Live 8" stage? This time I wondered what the hell he was doing in this film and why the heck was he rambling about Hugo Chavez??

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: