Starting at Home
This used to be a baseball field. Now it’s just a big field… of field.
For the second anniversary of Katrina, says Soledad O’Brien, she was determined not to do what she and everyone else had already done. “You just can’t go back and stand in front of collapsed buildings and stand in front of a levee and do it again,” she says, “We might be doing that for the next 10 to 15 years. How are we going to tell the story in a way that’s going to capture people and make them understand what the progress is or isn’t?”
O’Brien’s solution, which she reports came to her in the middle of one night, is terrific. For CNN Special Investigations Unit: Children of the Storm, 11 teenagers who live in and around New Orleans are handed digital video cameras and instructed—by Spike Lee, no less—to “record your life, what you’re doing, what’s in and around you.” He smiles as the kids, handling their cameras for the first time, look into their own lenses and introduce themselves. “I suggest,” Lee says, “that you start at home.”
And so they do. The catch is that many of these young documentarians don’t have homes, or at least not the homes they had two years ago. Following Hurricane Katrina, they’re living in trailers, separated from their families, their lives changed forever. Of the 75,000 high school students in New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish before the storm, only 30,000 have come back. Children of the Storm shows a range of reactions ongoing disruption, including frustration, expectation, and fear. The results, filmed between January and August of this year, are at once intimate and wide-ranging, heartbreaking and hopeful. Above all, they are specific and sincere: the kids record “what’s in and around” them, showing more than telling, delineating their options and dilemmas.
Deshawn Dabney, 15 years old and a high school sophomore, records a demonstration he leads through his neighborhood. “We are marching,” he declares through his bullhorn, “because the violence has gone too far.” It’s not news that the New Orleans murder rate is high (as of January of this year, some “30% higher than any other U.S. city”), but as Deshawn tells his story, the abstraction of such a number turns urgent. After seeing someone he knew from school dead from a gunshot wound, Deshawn decides he had to do something. “I don’t want to be dead at 15,” he says. The film project helps him to make his case to a broader audience.
Similarly, musician Brandon Franklin seeks connections beyond his city: “Really, to me, New Orleans feels like an island to the United States.” And so he means to use his video project to break through that isolation, to rebuild a sense of community. Remember, Spike tells his trainees, “You’re doing this for the world, not just for yourself, the world is gonna see this stuff. So you gotta come correct.”
Throughout Children of the Storm, the kids come completely correct. (And unfortunately, the hour-long program showcases only four of them, with others grouped together as a kind of coda—given the power and poetry of their work, this seems short shrift.) Brandon says he wants to use his film to “inspire others, our peers, and show them that even though that big tragedy happened, you can still strive through, even though it’s a big, big struggle.” A father of two at 19, Brandon lives with his girlfriend, goes to school, and works, gigging with his band (he wants to be a band director when he graduates college). As O’Brien tells us (and more often than not, her pre- and post-commercial break narrations are unnecessary, as the kids are more than able to tell their own stories), Katrina helped to change his priorities.
Seventeen-year-old Amanda Hill, whose story opens the program, finds focus and determination in making her film. She says, “I wanted to show that Katrina wasn’t just something that happened two years ago, it still affects us every day. From money to friends to family, I want to show the nation that it’s not anything the way it used to be, and it probably never will be.” Amanda, whose mother died when she was just 11, lives with her grandmother in a FEMA trailer.
At 66, Maw-maw works at McDonalds, the only job she could find, and feels so overcome with stress and worry that she won’t be able to support the her granddaughter that she literally can’t catch her breath: Amanda says, “I wake up 3 o’clock in the morning and I hear my grandma crying because she doesn’t know if she’s gonna be able to put milk in the refrigerator.” When Amanda asks Maw-maw what she thinks about being on CNN, she answers, “I look like a scarecrow like somebody that’s dead and forgot to die.” Amanda laughs; their jokes are dark, but they are jokes. O’Brien notes that even the CNN crew started to worry about her, with only $200 in the bank. When Amanda and her grandmother finally get good news about insurance payments, they’re thrilled. Having electricity changes everything.
Shantia Reneau, also 17, struggles with other uncertainties. She hopes to go to college (“She desperately wants to get out of here,” observes O’Brien, again, needlessly). Tired of sleeping on a sofa in a trailer (“I’m used to having my own room, so it’s a big change for me”), she’s accepted at Southeastern Louisiana University. She films her campus visit, as well as her up-and-downy drama (she learns she can’t afford the tuition, then learns, after making other plans, that the school will help her with financing). “This decision is so hard right now,” she confesses. “And my voice is cracky.”
Vulnerable, resilient, and lovely, Shantia, like the other documentarians here, finds her voice and performs her complexities. If most media coverage of Katrina’s victims and survivors leaves them looking lost and beset, Children of the Storm shows kids making their own ways. As home comes to mean something new, these young artists are inspiring. You want to see more of them.