Top of the Docs #1 – When the Levees Broke (2006, Spike Lee)

Hello everyone! Welcome to Top of the Docs! Where, rather than lip-synching, we instead look each week at a specific documentary we feel deserves its 15 minutes. The documentaries are going to vary, old and new, full features and shorts, every and all documentaries are welcome here, and we’ll be exploring them each week!

Our first entry into Top of the Docs does venture to the long end of the spectrum, but given the current situation in Australia, it is only right we look at perhaps the most powerful documentary ever made about an environmental disaster, that being Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke. The film details the events that preceded and followed Hurricane Katrina, focusing on the level of damage (both physical and structural) the hurricane caused, as well as the socio-political context in which the disaster happened.

Hurricane Katrina itself caused a lot of damage, more than it is possible to comprehend. So rather than attempting to cover that much ground, Lee instead focuses on the devastation of New Orleans, following the failure of the levees. Lee began shooting the film only three months after the hurricane hit, taking eight trips to New Orleans and conducting interviews with over 100 people from various backgrounds and communities in order to get a rounded view of the disaster. What follows is a detailing of systematic violence against working class and minority Americans during a time of crisis. Through the interviews with both celebrities, politicians, and people still living in the communities shattered by Katrina, Lee pieces together over four hours exactly how the US government mismanaged, and underfunded New Orleans to the point that the disaster was only a matter of time.

Lee creates a huge picture of what happened in New Orleans, almost too large to process all at once (helped by the fact that the film is told over four acts). This scale of documentary filmmaking is perhaps only comparable to the likes of Frederick Wiseman, who also manages to take such specific injustices and stretch them out, scrutinising every detail. The difference here lies in Lee’s public persona. Wiseman is not at all present throughout his films (except perhaps in his editing), whereas Lee acts almost as a figure of hope, someone that the interviewees trust to voice their injustices. His personality sometimes leaps out in the interviews, leaving in a question, or laughing with the interviewee off camera.  Though the scale may be there, Lee’s presence is undeniable, and gives the film a much more personal feel.

Given that we live in a world where, unfortunately, environmental disasters are happening more often than ever, and with more extremity than we’ve previously seen, When the Levees Broke takes a look at how funding for the prevention of these catastrophes is distributed (using its particular case study) and showcases the need for precautions to be properly maintained. The film looks at historical examples of environmental disaster in New Orleans, such as the great floods in 1927, and draws parallels as to how the response from the government and the state has changed. Given that the documentary runs for over four hours, this socio-historical approach is given apt time but doesn’t interrupt with the more current, and arguably pressing issues the film showcases. In short, though the film may give a deeper historical background than you may expect, it reserves the majority of its time to give voice to the voiceless and shine a light on the sheer destruction and neglect caused by both Katrina and the US government.

The film would go on to be a critical darling, with numerous critics commending the way in which Lee presented comprehensive evidence of mistreatment by both the federal and state government, as well as documenting the tragedy and how heartbreakingly preventable it was. In the spirit of Michael Apted’s Up series, Lee intended to interview the same people again at a later date, to assess how over time their situation had changed, resulting in a second documentary entitled If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise in 2010.

So, there you have it! Our first Top of the Docs entry is officially When the Levees Broke! It is well worth seeking the film out if you haven’t already seen it. We have a Letterboxd list where each film is going to be listed, so make sure you check that out and add them to your watchlist if you haven’t already seen them, and @ us if you decide to review them yourselves! And make sure you tune in next week for another look at the magic that is documentary cinema!

Extract from When the Levees Broke