WILLIAMSTOWN -- In the documentary film, "Back To Abnormal," the city of New Orleans is given a frank examination by people who have lived there and stay connected to it -- and its conclusions might surprise people on the outside who have certain assumptions about race, corruption and victimization.
The film screens at Thursday, Oct. 3, at 5 p.m., at Images Cinema. Co-director Paul Stekler, a Williams College Class of 1974 graduate, will be there for a Q & A.
Filmmakers Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker and Stekler all lived in New Orleans for about a decade in the 1970s and ‘80s and knew each other. Co-director and editor Peter Odabashian joined the team when Alvarez and Kolker moved their film-making efforts to New York City. For the three who had lived there, New Orleans became a permanent part of their being.
"It's one of those places that you never get out of your blood if you have been there, and we were there when we were young men," Alvarez said. "It was a formative place; personally, it was incredible."
The team would get together every several years to work on a documentary together, including a 1992 film, "Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics," that examined the state's politics, which is an area of Stekler's expertise -- he taught political science and southern politics at Tulane Universaity.
After Hurricane Katrina hit, the team were constantly asked if they were headed down to New Orleans to make a documentary about the aftermath, but the team preferred to not join the mad dash of filmmakers already doing that and wait for "post-post-Katrina."
"In 2009, we went down after the caravan moved on and the city was getting back to normalcy, or abnormalcy, to see whether there's a story there," Alvarez said. "That's where we met [city councilmember] Stacy Head and her [advisor], Barbara Lacen-Keller, who kind of took over the movie, by the virtue of not only their personalities. It was an interesting metaphorical picture of what was going on in terms of race and violence, but also elections are very useful structurally because they have a clock, they have a built in narrative and there's a built in conclusion."
The film focuses on a city council election between white incumbent Stacy Head and her challenger, African-American minister Corey Watson, with a good amount of screen time also given to Head's African-American political adviser, Barbara Lacen-Keller, examining the way the political scene is in an on-going transformation since Katrina, and sometimes a rather bumpy one.
"The whole idea of looking at a race for city council is kind of low, low key for a story until you actually have the characters and that's the way films live and die," Stekler said. "Do you have really compelling characters who serve as metaphors for a larger truth?
"If you understand New Orleans and understand the primacy of race in all its complexity in New Orleans, it is very, very complex, more than just black and white -- it's black, white, Creole, and it's changed over time in history. It lead to all sorts of different gradations in terms of race relations and different rules, and what rights, and whatever, so that in this complex soup of stuff, this turned out to be a fabulous metaphor for what are the race relations in a city like New Orleans, how they change over time."
The election, the filmmakers say, had the convenience of wrapping itself through various parts of the city, revealing the whole picture of what Katrina did, rather than what they think was a hardened and convenient narrative forced on the perception of the city's disaster.
"I consider Anderson Cooper to be one of the prime abetters," Alvarez said. "New Orleans was a victim -- it was a victim of federal incompetance. Within New Orleans places like the lower 9th ward had the worst problems, and that poor black people were the victims. There was a narrative that fit into the way we tend to think about race and class on a national level. But in New Orleans, anyone who's been down there knows it's much more complicated than that."
"In terms of neighborhoods that were wiped out, there were working class white neighborhoods that were wiped out that you never heard about because Anderson Cooper didn't go the extra two miles to those neighborhoods where people suffered just as much loss. There were wealthy white neighborhoods that got really wiped out. There were middle-class black neighborhoods that got wiped out next to middle-class white neighborhoods that got wiped out. It was very complicated, and what you see in our movie is that just painting New Orleans as victim is too easy, because New Orleans is a co-author of its misery, as David Simon of Treme said something like that. Basically they abet their own problems."
Through the focus on Head and the election, the filmmakers found they were able to document what was the main dynamic in New Orleans, the general cause of many of the problems there and the focus of its often painful and loud post-hurricane transformation.
"One of the consistent things over the decades is that New Orleans has always managed to kind of screw things up for itself because its priorities and behavior is different," Alvarez said. "They don't believe in good government. They do believe in partying and they do believe in putting stuff off. They don't hold their politicians to any kind of moral standards. On the other hand, it's an amazingly wonderful place to be. It's this yin-yang that everyone who lives there knows about and makes a moral peace with, or tries to."
Part of getting that across was to document the history that lead up to the dynamic, and the tendency for people not from New Orleans to attach a more general view of race relations that doesn't reflect the specific history of New Orleans.
"A very key scene for us was the 50th anniversary of the school desegregation, which was an unbelievably moving moment just to be there," said Alvarez, "and we put it in there because it's very much about the historical memory that African Americans have in New Orleans. It's very easy to look at corrupt politician, which in New Orleans is usually a black man or a black woman, and say. ‘Oh, they're corrupt,' but when you go back and look at all the stuff that's gone on over the years, it's harder to make these clear moral distinctions, and we tried to convey that.
The displacement of segments of the population has a distinct effect on any city and, in regard to New Orleans, the question becomes, what do you do when a city has to make changes to survive, but these changes get rid of at least part of what defines it and makes it special?
"In New Orleans, people were always saying that if there was only a way we could find to keep the good stuff about New Orleans and get rid of the bad stuff," Alvarez said. "The point is that it's all intertwined. You see it in New York. New York's gotten very expensive, but it's also gotten very clean and safe. A lot of stuff that went away was problematic, but also brought a diversity and multiplicity that's not here anymore. It's really tough, and if you're one of the people who is being swept aside, or your interest is swept aside, it's a problem, and it's very hard to play God on that one."
"In New Orleans, the fear was always going to be that you had a culture that was organic for the people who lived there and it was going to become more of a Disneyland culture," Stekler said. "The culture that produced jazz and the unique food would be there just for tourists and the people wouldn't be there anymore. To a certain extent, that's the case in that a quarter of the population of the city hasn't moved back. Who knows what this actually means long term for the city. A lot of the city's ills are still there. Still a high murder rate, still poverty, the school system is still in flux. The stuff that made it wonderful also made it horrible."