Treme: Series Premiere

This scant but already potent backstory indicates how Treme works, tracing differences and connections between generations old and new, forever shaped by the storm and its notorious "aftermath."

Treme: Series Premiere

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET
Cast: Khandi Alexander, Wendell Pierce, Clarke Peters, Rob Brown, Kim Dickens, John Goodman, Steve Zahn
Network: HBO
Director: David Simon, Eric Overmyer
Air date: 2010-04-11
I just didn't mention it. Being an old football player, I think those people in Katrina were probably appreciative of the fact that I acknowledged the Saints.

-- Former Rep. J.C. Watts, "In New Orleans, The GOP moves past Katrina"

I married a goddamn musician. Ain't no way to make that shit right.

-- Ladonna (Khandi Alexander)

It's been three months since Katrina. Ladonna (Khandi Alexander) still hasn't heard from her brother David, who may or may not have been incarcerated when the storm hit. Official records are lost. Some folks who know him assume he's run off. "Lotta people missing," says a cop. "Lotta people wanna be missing." But Ladonna worries. "I think he dead," she says, her voice low and thin. "All this time and that boy ain't called?"

At the start of Treme, Ladonna's unsure what to do. She runs a bar -- the one her daddy left her -- in Central City. Like too many businesses in the neighborhood, it's in trouble, but she feels committed, even though her husband Larry (Lance E. Nichols) has moved her son Alcide (Renwick D. Scott II) up to Baton Rouge, where Larry's relocated his law practice; he's urging her to sell and move on. But Ladonna's got complications, namely, her mother won't leave New Orleans. "She never been anyplace else," not even to Baton Rouge, she explains to an astonished Alcide.

This scant but already potent backstory indicates how Treme works. As Ladonna and Larry peer at each over the dinner table, Alcide -- her son with Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), a trombonist back in New Orleans -- embodies a generation now forever shaped by the storm and its notorious "aftermath." Bright and polite, Alcide is also disappointed, and reminded daily that adults know what they're doing. If his new life Baton Rouge isn't what he expected, it's the one he has, and for now, at least, the past doesn't seem so precious, so worth preserving, as his mother insists.

That's not to say Ladonna doesn’t have support. Toni (Melissa Leo), a lawyer known for suing the local PD, assures her she'll find out what happened. Her investigation suggests David was at OPP (Orleans Parish Prison) during the flood. When the cops don't have straight answers, she starts looking at photos -- those thousands taken by news agencies during Katrina, many uploaded and now hanging in the digital ether, documents of crowds and calamities that no one has had time or inclination to organize or understand. Near the end of Treme's first episode, “Do You Know What It Means,” Toni finds David's face in an image, one among many young men in orange jumpsuits. When she delivers the news to Ladonna, the two women smile at each other, their eyes wet and wide as they guess at what it means. "Where he at?" Ladonna asks. Toni sighs, "I don't know," as a helicopter whap-whaps overhead and offscreen.

This chopper noise is one of those details that Treme gets so exactly right. New Orleans remains unsettled after the storm, everyone feeling simultaneously surveilled and abandoned, always uneasy. Toni's husband, Tulane English professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), voices his rage and distress to whoever will listen. Introduced as he's instructing a TV reporter ("The flooding of New Orleans was a manmade catastrophe," he pronounces, "It was decades in the making"). When the reporter provokes him, wondering aloud why the "nation" should pay for local rebuilding, Creighton gathers and launches, his 11ish daughter Sofia (India Ennenga) ready to be entertained. "You go, daddy," she whispers to herself as he grabs up the crew's camera and tosses it into the canal.

Sofia, like Alcide, is suffering her own post-Katrina fallout. She's unhappy with the school she's attending in Baton Rouge ("I hate it more than words can say," she complains, "The girls are not nice," blaming her newly acquired foul language on "Catholic school"). But Sofie's bothered by her route back to school in New Orleans. When Creighton explains that a public school will be refitted for charter students, like her, Sofia exclaims, "That's not fair!" That's right, her dad nods, and that’s how she'll be able to go to school in New Orleans.

Sofie's consternation reflects a general worry about how politics and money are changing New Orleans after the storm. While individuals deal with lost property and argue with insurance companies, neighborhoods are in flux, prey to corporate schemes and losing hold of traditions. In an effort to reclaim at least a feeling of Congo Square, were his station used to be, a radio DJ named Davis (Steve Zahn) is surprised but goes along when his guest, Ascension Parish's own Coco Robicheaux, proceeds to sacrifice a chicken on air. Davis is less surprised when he's fired for the stunt (or, as he explains to his disapproving parents, his "situation becomes untenable"), but he can't quite settle into his new gig as a hotel clerk. Though he's instructed never to send guests in search of "real" New Orleans beyond the "safe" couple of blocks surrounding the hotel, Davis can't help himself: when a crew of kids from a church group ask where to go for music, he sends them to Bourbon Street.

Here they run into Antoine, who helps them sort through a few cubs and lots of liquor. For his part, Antoine insists he's only working Bourbon Street while he's looking for a job -- because "There's a difference between job and a gig," as his girlfriend Desiree (Phyllis Montana LeBlanc) reminds him, but each night brings its own adventures if you're a musician in New Orleans. And there are plenty of those in Treme, from real-life artists like Kermit Ruffins, Allen Toussaint, and Elvis Costello to characters negotiating traditions and careers.

Trumpet player Delmond (Rob Brown) is busy in New York when his sister Davina (Edwina Findley) calls, worried about their dad, house-builder and longtime Ninth Ward Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters). Albert's as determined to revive the tribe as he is to rebuild his broken, moldy-walled home, and Davina's tired of being responsible while her brother's on the road. "I've got gigs," he says, by way of excusing himself. "We all got gigs, Delmond," she schools him. "Life is a goddamn gig."

As angry as Davina may be when she makes this pronouncement, it serves as something of a theme for Treme, a description of the temporary and lifelong passions that hold lives together in the face of devastations small and large. As Davis campaigns to preserve the "real" music, or his sometime girlfriend Janette (Kim Dickens), a chef, struggles to keep her restaurant afloat, as Antoine tires to get by and over, and as Ladonna seeks the truth about her brother, Treme sketches and interweaves stories and desires, hopes and disenchantments.

Music shapes all in Treme, experiences as well as ideas and themes. When Delmond contributes to a recording session, the camera cuts back and forth between the booth and the musicians, the soundtrack bouncing from what each artist hears in his headphones to the combinations the engineers are manipulating. Brief, sinuous, and resonant, the scene is a terrific evocation of how music -- or art or life -- is made and understood, at once elegant and precise, fragmented and thrilling.


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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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