by Michael Joshua Rowin
The Axe in the Attic
Dirs. Lucia Small and Ed Pincus, U.S., no distributor
Self-reflexivity is a funny thing: it can either allow documentary directors to broach their subject from the inside out, casting light on the otherwise concealed process of filmmaking, or it can severely distract by putting the director in the spotlight at the expense of the subject. The Axe in the Attic, Lucia Small and Ed Pincus’s documentary on the repercussions of Hurricane Katrina, unfortunately falls in the latter category. It contains some riveting testimony of New Orleans’s destruction and the aftermath from the storm’s refugees, but it’s also sabotaged by a tone-deaf attempt to hold a mirror up to the directors’ liberal misgivings about undertaking such a project. It’s not the concept that’s inherently flawed—one day when the time is right and the execution works somebody will create an illuminating portrait of both the legacy of Katrina and the unavoidable difficulties of engaging the issue from across racial and economic divides. But until then we’ll have to learn from the mistakes of others, and that’s probably the most generous way to view The Axe in the Attic.
From the outset Pincus and Small make their own story just as important as those of the storm’s victims, a sad miscalculation. They introduce themselves as Northern liberals, worlds apart culturally from the impoverished denizens of the Gulf Coast. Pincus’s previous experience with the South (for all the sensitivity they try to display the filmmakers often unintentionally reveal their condescension by referring to Dixie as some monolithic entity, as if New Orleans weren’t a unique city) was in documenting the Civil Rights movement as it took place there in the 1967 cinema verite film Black Natchez. Since then he’s put a camera aside and settled in Vermont. His documentary strategy in The Axe in the Attic seems to consist of placing himself at an uncomfortable remove from the subjects of the film. There’s a contrived nonchalance in his relationship to the camera and the unavoidable awkwardness of documenting people he cannot help that goes beyond steely professionalism. Thus we learn that he’s a socially conscious New York Jew who grew up idolizing Jackie Robinson, because otherwise he comes across as a bit of a jerk. Small, on the other hand, refuses to duck the issue of her moral scruples—she often talks directly to the camera about her guilt at not being able to do more than record her subjects, and when Pincus gives money to a desperate man stuck in FEMA’s largest trailer park in Baker, Louisiana, she walks off in a huff, angry at his disregard for the unwritten ethical code of documentary filmmaking, but also because she’s torn by wanting to do the same thing.
Self-evaluation is all well and good, but Pincus and Small’s idea of it is wrong. Directors should turn the camera on themselves only if they’re captivating enough subjects in their own right and can show that they’re learning from the documentary experience. In other words, their intrusion should widen the parameters of their film. But in The Axe in the Attic Pincus and Small constantly call attention to their feelings while on the road from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati to Kentucky and then to the areas greatest affected by the storm because they want to cover their bases. The film quickly becomes a narcissistic display in which Pincus and Small struggle to appease their consciences, and not to explore the issues of documentary ethics. Their presence is irritating, both on the soundtrack where their voice-over narrations ponder superficially on the nature of their transgression into the South (you’d think that Pincus would have already understood what kind of role religion plays in a city like New Orleans) and on the screen, where the partners’ meditations on their privilege feels calculated and inserted purely for the sake of drama. Ultimately they take time and attention away from the interesting refugees they meet, who should be receiving the face time to tell their harrowing stories.
Pincus and Small do allocate most of The Axe and the Attic to those trying to start over after Katrina, both the survivors who’ve moved on to new cities and lives, and those who’ve stayed behind to either repair what they can or suffer poverty in government-sanctioned trailer parks and campgrounds. Anger, frustration, and sadness are expressed in memories of the chaos that swept through the city after the levees gave way, and everything we’ve heard about the draconian, racist, and bureaucratic response of local and federal government in dealing with what might have been simply a natural disaster (an act of god instead of an act of man) is reconfirmed. The images of the destruction itself are absolutely unforgettable, and the sight of workers and returning residents surveying the damage, many of them openly weeping, completely contradicts the claims of one interviewee who shrugs off Katrina by comparing it to worse disasters. But for all the emotion and insight they offer, the victims—including two refugees and veterans in a Northern Alabama trailer park who vent their rage at the Bush Administration, a woman who watched her police officer fiancé tie a drowned baby to a tree, a family whose newly bought home is ravaged by the waters, a father who walks five hours to his job every day from the Baker trailer park because he can’t afford bus fare, and a woman who complains at a FEMA center for the federal assistance she needs only to be once more rebuffed—are overwhelmed by the directors’ lamely handled ethical crisis. Only toward the end of the film do Pincus and Small stop monopolizing the camera, by then the emphasis of the discourse has been dominated by their needs, not those of their subjects. Pincus and Small must recognize the error of their approach, but—to be generous where generosity might be unwarranted—perhaps their faulty strategy can be blamed on bad timing: Hurricane Katrina hit only two years ago, and The Axe in the Attic’s self-reflexivity feels self-important, a gaze at the navel when a gaping wound hasn’t even begun to heal.