As we carry forth alphabetically along our merry way through the Academy’s 144-title long-list (yes, we’ll still be going both after the shortlist as well as after the nominations next week—click here for A through J) we have coincidentally found two consecutive titles about the city of New Orleans. Bost missed the shortlist, which isn’t surprising although they each have their virtues. Following these, however, is one film that did make the Oscar shortlist and that doesn’t make quite such convenient bedfellows, but rules are rules and we’re dealing with what the alphabet gives us.
The strongest of the pair from Louisiana is Katrina Babies, Edward Buckles’ partly autobiographical account of life in the city post Hurricane Katrina. Buckles uses a mixture of interviews, archival news footage and colourful animation to tell the story of how this natural event destroyed the way of life of so many, but in particular a group of children who knew no other life and were quickly forced to grow up.
The film needn’t have included the famous telethon snippet of Kanye West saying, live on television (next to Mike Myers, because naturally), that then-President George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people”—but it certainly helps. It was true then, and you only need to watch the news today or scroll through Twitter for the briefest of moments to know that little has changed from the grand ol’ Republican Party (it may have even gotten worse, i’m not the best person to say). If catastrophe brings out the best in some, it will most certainly also bring out the worst in others. Unlike some other works about Hurricane Katrina, Buckles doesn’t spend too much time belabouring the point as we can see it on the faces of his interview subjects through, or in the images he has amassed of television news and home movies of streets in predominantly black neighbourhoods full of mud, debris and even bodies that is all it needed to demonstrate it.
A disaster like Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans, a city that sits below sea level, was surely always going to happen. That it most affected black citizens was the most inevitable outcome. Katrina Babies is at its strongest when it focuses in on the specificities of what was lost when those levees broke. The black communities that had been built over generations and broken apart in an evening. The black culture that was dispersed and left to deteriorate in health-threatening refugee camps. The black families, both biological and chosen, that now had nothing left but memories of stench-ridden shelters and cramped attics. I wished it had spent more time on the gentrification of these neighbourhoods in the aftermath, effectively washing away generations of history for boxes on stilts with solar panels in up-and-coming neighbourhoods, just further humiliation for people who had already been through so much.
Buckles doesn’t handle all of it quite as well, in particular the more self-reflective stuff, that comes across as looser and shaggier. Maybe a little bit to be expected; this is a debut film after all. It does feel a bit churlish to suggest the director should maybe have not focused on himself so much, but it unfortunately distracts from the really pertinent stuff that he is otherwise able to uncover.
Release: Streaming on HBO Max
Much lighter in tone is Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story, which looks at the titular Louisiana tradition and its impact of the city and its people. As this sort of movie goes, it’s nice enough. I could have done with less of the more generic platitudes about the power of music and (pardon the pun) all that jazz. Although who can really argue with seeing some of these legends speaking and performing. It is a pretty good advert for the Jazz Fest, that’s for sure.
Like Katrina Babies, its budgetary limitations are quite clear. The musical performances, for instance, are fun but shot rather rudimentarily and rarely provide the viewer with the sort of front-row excitement that such sequences ought to. They are often edited, too, within a stretch of narrative, the song climaxing as that particular thread too comes to an end before moving on to the next theme. It’s a bit repetitive that way. Its strongest moments, though, are when it weaves performance with story and talking heads, with archival footage from the festival’s past, with photography and even with glimpses of mouth-watering food. It’s in these instances, more sophisticated and perhaps inspired a little bit by Summer of Soul, that Marshall and Suffern get closest to bringing an audience in on the experience of attending Jazz Fest—fusing time and culture into one electric montage and where it most lives up to the doc’s most memorable line: “Everywhere you walk in New Orleans, you’re walking through history.”
Release: Available to rent and buy on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, AMC On Demand and more.
It feels a little bit like whiplash to move on to a feature like Last Flight Home, but I don’t control the alphabet. Gifted a title with a rather superb double-meaning title, director Orli Timoner returns from a brief (and ill-fated) detour into dramatic narrative cinema (2018’s Mapplethorpe) with what is probably her best film to date. An emotional glimpse into the life her father, Eli Timoner, as he takes the steps towards medically terminating his own life. Shot throughout the required two-week waiting period, Timoner uses this opportunity to peek inside the crevices of her family history and in particular the life of her father, the entrepreneurial founder of Air Florida, whose personal feelings around his own failings as a husband and father make for stark yet compelling storytelling as told through Timoner’s humble personal camera.
This is obviously a more laser-focused film than Peter Richardson’s quite extraordinary How to Die in Oregon from 2011, which covered the issue of assisted dying across a multi-pronged narrative. While I don’t think Last Flight Home is quite as strong as that film, what it manages to capture is a moment in time; the very sort of moment in time that we may never want to experience ourselves, but which hopefully this film can, in some way, demystify.
This is obviously a film that is much easier to commend that recommend. One doesn’t simply sit down and watch a movie like Last Flight Home. But those who are prepared to invest in a narrative such as this will be richly rewarded with a film that looks at life in a way that is unvarnished yet graceful.