Reviews

'Witness: Katrina': All Under Water Now

Witness: Katrina compiles images taken by survivors, with minimal narration, reminders of how current events become functions of their recordings.

Witness: Katrina

Airtime: Monday, 9pm ET
Cast: Shelton Alexander, Kennard Jackley, Fabian & Pamela Guerra, Cheryl York
Network: National Geographic Channel
Director: Greg Jacobs, Jon Siskel
Air date: 2010-08-23
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"Are you ready for some rain?" A clot of young men in t-shirts and jeans, raise their plastic cups to Hurricane Katrina. It's Saturday night. 27 August 2005, and they're imagining the effects of the storm to come. "Snakes," one says. "Water rats," offers another. "It's a hurricane party, man," someone else nods. "Enjoy yourself."

Five years ago, these friends couldn't imagine the horrors to come. Their bit of home video is now part of documentary assembled by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel, the experiences of some 40 survivors captured in their own videos. Witness: Katrina, premiering 23 August on National Geographic Channel, chronicles the storm and its aftermath, with minimal narration to transition between days and note escalating damage -- the rising waters, the numbers in the Superdome, the increasingly ineffective efforts by public officials. There is no more chilling moment in the film than when a woman calls 911 in Biloxi over images of a house submerged and trees bending. "My house has moved," she says, her voice anxious, "And I've got two small kids." The operator answers, "Ma'am, we don’t have anybody we can send to you. I can take your name."

The route to this chaos is charted by assorted images from the day the storm hit, the 28th, followed by some aftermath footage. A TV reporter looks out from a roof in downtown New Orleans as the rains begin. "You love the thunder, you love the rain, Jackson Browne," he quips. You can hear his cameraman laugh off-screen: "It's coming." A couple of cops drive slowly through the streets, windshield wipers whap-whapping. They spot a "homeless guy." Hey, one cop says, "That's Edmund, I know him." They remark that the levees system "ain't much protection," as the film cuts to Central City, where a woman speaks into her camera, worried because she took a sleeping pill, imagining "everything was cool." Her voice speeds up: "However, the whole city is completely off. Everything is dark." Her camera points out her window at a ghostly scene, a faraway cityscape, wet and black: "I think the city had something to do with this," she adds, "Because this is just too fucking weird."

By Monday, the 29th, the hurricane has passed, but the waters keep coming. In Slidell, Mississippi, Kennard Jackley heads outside his house to tape the scene. "The seas are restless today," he cackles, "Whooo, mother nature, the mad mammy jammer." His camera lurches. "Here comes another gust," he explains, "I gotta get back inside. Holy shit." The cut to a Holiday Inn in Gulfport suggests the simultaneity of onslaughts, rain and wind combined. "These walls are gonna start to come down," says a friend of the cameraman, "Are you taping this?" Another man, located in an apartment uptown, has made a bed for himself and his dog Cowboy, in his closet. Cowboy looks away, head down.

Along with these individual instances, where friends and family hunker down in small spaces, Witness: Katrina includes as well footage taken by Shelton Alexander at the Superdome (on the first night, he points his camera up at the roof, where rain pounds hard). The narrator observes there are more than 10,000 people here, "and nowhere for them to go." Once the storm passes, Alexander heads outside. "It's so messed up inside," he says, "We had to come outside and chill." Though, as his footage suggests, no one's precisely "chilling." Shepherd Smith directs his Fox News camera operator as to what might provide the most dramatic backgrounds, to show the "a mass of humanity." They pause to look up at Air Force One, flying over the Superdome.

As news images help to remind viewers of what they might have seen on TV, the on-the-ground images suggest the extent to which individuals with cameras -- likely cameras they purchased to preserve holidays and outings -- were also moved to record the crisis as it happened. You're reminded as well of how current events become functions of their recordings. These videographers' motives are multiple, from practical (Jackley pans his camera over his belongings, noting, "This is it, insurance people") to commemorative (Cheryl York in Gulfport, Mississippi, points her camera at her husband picking through their flooded living room: "That's our laptop computer, the table, the vacuums that we moved up high: all under water now").

Like Siskel and Jacobs' Witness: DC, charting experiences in Washington on 9/11, their new documentary organizes these discrete instances to indicate the similarity of traumas as well as feelings of isolation and fear they inspired. Witness: Katrina creates continuity and narrative structure by sometimes returning to same spots and videoographers, the stories providing contexts for each other. One cameraman pursues a man breathing hard as he pushes a shopping cart, loaded with supplies. "You're a man with a story to tell, I can tell that," the cameraman says. "Which one you wanna know?" asks his subject, smiling grimly.

Humor helps. At Charity Hospital, a doctor describes her wrecked surroundings. "I know it looks glamorous," she says, "This is the window we just broke to try to get some air." She and her associates start to riff: "This is like Call of the Wild, Lord of the Flies, what do they call it?" Someone else chimes in: "Survivor!" She looks out the window as she continues, "That's the water as it creeps up the street." And you can see it, thanks to her impulse to record.

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