If Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke was grand opera, Ashley Sabin and David Redmon’s Kamp Katrina is tragic farce; less overtly political and angry than Lee’s document, but a stirring account of desperate poverty nonetheless. If it lacks a broader vision, it is only by design, as it chooses to spend time with one Ms. Pearl, an eccentric woman of Native American heritage who opens her backyard to fourteen of her fellow residents in the weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina. But rather than grind political axes (as justified as that would be), it eschews narration or perspective in favor of verite, which of course is the only possible style if trying to convey raw, unfiltered truth. For if the filmmakers have accomplished anything, they put forth the case that if New Orleans is to survive — and depending on my mood, I waver — it is, like any city worth its salt, because of the characters who make it unique. And this movie, for all of the sadness that pervades the devastated region, is peppered with a perverse hilarity, as drunks, drug addicts, lunatics, and the criminally insane camp out, fight, steal, and yes, even pop out fake eyeballs when the occasion calls for it. It’s a glorious, sick carnival befitting the home of Mardi Gras.
We begin with the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, just one month removed from the storm’s fury. Ms. Pearl, one of those generous free spirits who seems more a product of fiction than actual flesh and blood, lays down the rules of Kamp Katrina: each “camper” has a six month limit, each must “desire” a job, one’s spot must be kept clean, and no one is allowed to be drunk or use “hard” drugs. Needless to say, these rules are abandoned within five minutes of the camp’s founding, but Ms. Pearl and her husband David do draw the line at the theft of an antique cat lamp. Tammy (the one with the eye, a condition that makes her look a bit like the nuclear waste dude from Robocop) and her man are tossed for the infraction, though in their defense, the item was a “gift” from the pregnant Kelley, the sort of young lady who gets pregnant by a man (Doug) she hates, then loves, then hates again, and who is so addicted to drugs that she plops out a premature infant that is hooked on cocaine. Kelley and Doug are denied access to the child (after it is put in protective custody), but swear up and down that they’ll clean up and start anew. This vow lasts as long as a short cab ride home, as Kelley roars for the car to stop so that she can flag down a drug dealer.
There’s also Billy, a crazy neighbor who is usually seen singing incoherently; Charlotte and Jerry, a wild pair who raise drunken revelry to high art, that is, when Jerry isn’t strangling the poor woman over a “pee bucket”; and some neighborhood sage who says of his city, “Fuck New Orleans….It’s like the armpit of the universe.” Above all, though, there is Charles, a true Crescent City creation — a man who so reveres Joan of Arc that he sincerely believes she is his girlfriend, and has such a hold that eventually he flees the area, leaving only a note that says the following: “I left because someone tried to sacrifice me with fire. Joan will protect me from the demons.” The message is signed “Saint Charles.” About this time, old Doug suddenly returns, I’m guessing because Ms. Pearl is serving Christmas dinner. But after all, she is almost obscenely dedicated, as few would have the patience to deal with people who have failure written all over them. She welcomes them, however, because she loves her city like nothing else. She’s nutty as a fruitcake, but quietly moving because she refuses to retreat to defeatism.
Ms. Pearl is also responsible for one of the movie’s great quotes. Upon seeing some drunk coming out of her bathroom, despite having set up similar facilities in her backyard to avoid that very thing, she cries, “I don’t want a naked man in my shower without any notice…unless it’s John Goodman.” Who the hell knows what she means, but we gather that she’s sincere. Throughout, she fights to keep control of her space, even as the city (and Mayor Nagin) shut down volunteer relief efforts in Washington Park. The closure sends even more people her way, even though — at least from what we see — the yard threatens to be overtaken by trash and the remnants from one of many “free beer stores”, which are abandoned liquor stores that still contain bottles of booze and such. No one sane would think of drinking them, given that they likely floated in diseased water for weeks, but there we are. Despite the setbacks, the threats, and the ever-growing drug trade, Ms. Pearl starts it all over again, even after the camp empties by the end of 2005.
So yes, the delights of the film are similar to masterworks like Running Stumbled, if the intent is to show marginalized people on their own terms, without the gloss and condescension that affect so many other works. The people of Kamp Katrina are neither sinners nor saints, and ask for nothing save the time to tell their stories. And even then, these aren’t so much stories as “records”; reminders that along with the rich and powerful so venerated by the media and government, there live among us human beings hanging on for dear life. Perhaps some would look at the inhabitants of the camp (especially a woman who uses drugs while pregnant) as worthless refuse, and the hurricane itself a righteous cleansing, but that’s exactly why this movie hits with such profound force: were it easy to love the poor, it’s likely they wouldn’t exist at all. After all, many of these people make profoundly stupid choices, and despite arms and doors open to them from the likes of Ms. Pearl, they seem fundamentally incapable of changing their lives for the better. Give them $100,000 each and they’d be broke inside of six months, buried and rotting beneath a stack of whiskey bottles and lottery tickets.
But they are Americans, and how that region was treated in the wake of the storm must (and will) remain one of the most shameful episodes in our nation’s history. They were ignored because they were largely black. They were despised because they worked for low wages, if at all. But for one of the few times anyone can remember, crushing, soul-deadening poverty was thrust into our living rooms, and we saw first-hand that the American dream is not in fact a possibility for all. But again, Kamp Katrina leaves the speechifying to others. We drive through enough of the area to get the point that yes, were this Beverly Hills, we would not see piles of debris mile after depressing mile, but we also remember the words of Kelley: “I don’t wanna be a Jane Doe.” She utters these words after trying desperately to convey her sadness at the thought of living and dying without loved ones or a sense of community. Sure, any sympathy is hard to generate in light of her child’s condition, but it centers the picture — beyond politics, beyond even filmmaking — as an expression of pure human need. There are indeed so many unnoticed, unstable lives — certainly in war zones like New Orleans — and the directors would be the last people to offer answers. They refuse, even, to toss out simplistic kumbayas that argue unconvincingly for love’s power to move mountains. It’s a refreshing, unbiased turn that promises to keep the movie fresh for years to come, rather than expiring with irrelevance after the next election cycle.