Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"Desert Bayou": Katrina evacuees wind up in Utah and, after being treated with suspicion, gradually assimilate

Desert Bayou, directed by Alex LeMay and written by Thomas Lemmer, came to Washington last weekend (Oct 26). It was presented at the ANC Dupont Circle 5, one of the oldest and smallest in the city. Sunday, there was no show at all as there was another festival. So this was one of those little, political documentaries that you have to hustle to see. The distributor is Cinema Libre (often associated with Robert Greenwalt) and most of the film is grainy video, fit into 1.85 to 1, and the sound seemed to play only mono.

The documentary traces the lives of a number of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. FEMA put them on a Jet Blue plane for unknown destination, and on the plane they learned in would be Salt Lake City, Utah. Of course, that location is popularly associated with the Mormon or Latter Day Saints Church, and was thought to be overwhelmingly white.

About six hundred people were first housed on a military base about forty miles south of Salt Lake City. They were subject to background checks and curfews. State and city officials, as well as the military and some townspeople, offered self-serving rationalizations for this. The curfews, it was said, would reassure the newcomers of their safety. From what? In the film, the appearance of the base reminded me of the Nisei Japanese internment camps during World War II, as depicted in Ken Burns ‘s PBS documentary, The War.

The documentary summarized the controversy over the LDS church, with photographs of the Temple and of the high rise office buildings of the headquarters downtown. Only priests, or wives or children of priests, can get into heaven. The film summarized the racially intolerant past of the Mormon Church, which opposed abolition, had practiced a patriarchal polygamy until around 1890. It admitted blacks to the priesthood after a “revelation” in 1978.

The Mormon Church, however authoritarian, has one of the most effective private welfare programs in the world, and was among the first large entities offering help in New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina victims -- a point not covered in the film, but covered in the PBS documentary mentioned below.

Nevertheless, many of the new residents assimilated, and about a hundred of the original 600 remained permanently and got employment and apartments. Many of the outdoor scenes in Utah were taken in winter, with the new residents acclimating to snow.

Some reviewers have criticized the film for making so much of the "regimentation" of the newcomers, and claim that this is common in many such situations and really is non race-related.

The film often revisits New Orleans, showing harrowing, of grainy, footage of Katrina, and the floods in the aftermath, and the wreckage in many neighborhoods today. Many residents feel they will be better off in new lands than in returning home. The film takes the position that reconstruction priorities favor the wealthier and touristy French Quarter and other better-off areas.

I covered the PBS film on the Mormons last May here.

I visited New Orleans and the Mississippi coast in February 2006, President's Day weekend. Volunteers who have gone down to work have often reported that they are not allowed to enter homes for cleanup because of mold.

The producers of this film advise the public that one can contribute to "The Rebuilding Fund" for New Orleans with a text message to 467467.

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