[22 June 2009]
There are some documentaries that really blow your mind. And then there are documentaries like America Betrayed. Don’t get me wrong, America Betrayed is full of interesting interviews and scandalous facts about government wrongdoings surrounding Hurricane Katrina. But it is nothing that has not been said before, generally and specifically.
Generally, it’s no surprise to documentary audiences that the government is corrupt. If we didn’t know or suspect this before, plenty of documentaries have revealed this “collusion, corruption and cronyism”. And America Betrayed had the potential to make a substantial original contribution to this body of documentary works. A documentary about America’s crumbling infrastructure that shows the massive failures, the connections to the Army Corp of Engineers, and the influence of Congress would be interesting. It would add another piece to the puzzle. But this is only a very small part of America Betrayed. The bulk of this documentary focuses on the collapse of the levees in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
A focus on Hurricane Katrina makes sense. It is the most well-known, most devastating catastrophe involving the Army Corp of Engineers’ projects in recent memory. It is the best example of the documentary’s thesis and illustrates “How Government and Big Business Bring Ruin to America’s Infrastructure”. But the problem is that America Betrayed simply lays out a bunch of evidence previously detailed in newspapers, magazines, books, and is considered by documentaries like Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke. The writers, community leaders and whistleblowers bring this information straight to the viewer, which should be a plus.
But there is so much repetition, dragging strings of talking heads, and a lack of organization and narrative development that America Betrayed is rather dry. It quickly makes its point and then drags it along for another hour plus.
The biggest “betrayal” on this DVD is not the scandals it details but the scandalously misleading DVD cover, title and description. Looking at the awards and blurbs, one might think she had picked up a much better documentary. It was a final selection at several film festivals and PopMatters is quoted saying that it is a “smart, galvanizing documentary”. A text box featured prominently under the tagline on the cover reads: ‘Featuring President Barack Obama, Senators John McCain and Mary Landrieu & more”. This “feature” is Senate footage of Obama and McCain as they go about their work as senators. Obama and McCain are not interviewed for the documentary any more than they are “featured” in it.
Reading the description, one might expect a completely different documentary. While America Betrayed does make references to other infrastructural issues and other geographic locations in peril, these details are glossed over and sometimes misrepresented. For instance, in listing other failures of dams and levees, the documentary mentions a dam in Hawaii that was not an Army Corp of Engineers project but groups it in as one of their failures.
Further, America Betrayed attempts to make connections to Iraq not simply in the blaming of the war in Iraq for the lack of money to help victims of Katrina to rebuild, but also arguing that American taxpayers are paying to build infrastructure in Iraq while our infrastructure at home is falling apart. This point is made quickly and simply and without the depth of detail or analysis offered in the case of Katrina.
After making these superficial comparative points, America Betrayed goes on to weakly consider the political and social implications connected to engineering failures. The cultural and economic importance of New Orleans are mentioned in a few interviews and many of the points made in the first third of the documentary are repeated before the watery conclusion finally trickles in.
The most disturbing and distracting aspect of this documentary is the fact that Leslie Cardé could make an entire documentary essentially about the destruction and aftermath of Katrina and not interview a single black victim. She interviews several white people who lost their homes and two or three black community leaders, but besides the Senate footage of Obama and the snippet of protests plastered with black faces, essentially these are the only non-white people in the entire documentary (and racism is only briefly mentioned in one bonus interview).
Thus, I was distracted most of the time, wondering if she purposefully avoided black people or if she just didn’t notice the omission. Perhaps black suffering has been ‘overdone’ and the only way to get people’s attention is to remind us that white people suffered too?
The DVD special features are, essentially, the only redeeming quality of this documentary. Extras include and interview with the director, a resource guide (“for those who’d like more information”) and bonus interviews including footage not seen in the documentary. The resource guide provides over a dozen websites as well as a recommended reading list and the interview with director, Leslie Cardé, includes answers to the frequently asked questions she and the filmmakers encountered at screenings including, “Why another movie that talks about Hurricane Katrina?”
Cardé, however, doesn’t think that America Betrayed is about Katrina but, rather, what happened before Katrina which she sees as “simply a springboard”. Unfortunately, this springboard is more like a trampoline.
While America Betrayed will most likely bore both those informed about the infrastructural problems as well as those uninformed about these problems, there are a few interesting tidbits of information and analysis offered sporadically. For instance, the discrepancy one interviewee asks us to consider between the unequal compensation of the victims of 9-11 compared to victims of the Oklahoma City Bombing who received no compensation. However, the documentary leaves very little room for analysis of this factor.
Also, Naomi Klein’s idea of “disaster capitalism” is briefly introduced, which is explained in more detail in Cardé’s interview. Despite all of these weaknesses, if one is interested in American infrastructure failures and government collusion in these failures, America Betrayed offers some interesting information and analysis. It just doesn’t have enough to make me recommend you run out and view it before the next inevitable disaster happens.