Alex LeMay and ‘Desert Bayou’
by Ben Poster
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The story of Hurricane Katrina is one that we are all familiar with at this point. But, some of its aftermath, such as 600 African-American New Orleanians being airlifted to Utah as part of a relocation program, may not be. Alex LeMay figured as much, and brought the story of these people and their journey to light with his documentary, Desert Bayou. He also brought his compassion for those personal stories and what they reveal about the deeper implications of the Katrina tragedy. But more importantly, he presented us with the story of hope that is contained within that tragedy as well.
Ben: Looking over some of your press material, it seems as if you guys had quite the abbreviated pre-production schedule… Could you talk about how it started as an idea for a project, and then turned into you filming in Utah a mere four days later?
LeMay: Like most feeling human beings, I saw those images on TV, after Katrina, and was absolutely horrified. Being a documentary filmmaker, that’s what we do, we go out and try to find the story, or get the story told to us. I had a producer in New Orleans and in the delta region almost immediately, like within 48 hours, and he basically reported back, “Look man, you cannot swing a dead-cat without hitting a documentary film crew down here or a CNN crew or something, this thing is being covered from stem to stern and I think if you come down here, you’re going to be one of many.” Talking to some of my friends in the documentary film world they were like, look, this story needs to be told, but the 24 hour news channels are doing the best job of it because they have the resources, and they have boots on the ground—they’re the ones that are going to do this.
So we heard on page 13 of the New York Times, between the crime blotters and a mattress ad, there was a one-paragraph story about 600 African-Americans being air-lifted to the entirely white state of Utah. “Isn’t that bizarre,” which is not to slight the New York Times at all, but they sort of made it a cutesy story, because it wasn’t really a story yet.
I knew we had something there, but in terms of pre-production, there was none. It was just a gut reaction that, “Hey, there’s something there,” and after securing some funding I was on a plane to Utah without really thinking this story through. You know, I didn’t have a theory about what I thought this film was going to be about, but that made me realize that this was a blessing in disguise. I can let the story unfold in front of me, and all I really need to do is stay out its way.
Ben: Yeah, and it seems like that approach, as well as shifting your focus from the standard ‘news reporting’ that was happening in New Orleans to the more human story of these folks newly arrived in Utah, really allowed you to take that next step with this documentary…
LeMay: If you notice, this film isn’t laden with George Bush bashing and governmental conspiracy because basically at that point, attacking the Bush administration is like punching a kindergartener, its really, really, really easy, you know, they just give you so much to work with that… I’m just going to leave that to The Daily Show.
The hard story was: what was the true price that we paid for Hurricane Katrina? The true price is watching somebody who had nothing in New Orleans go to a place where they didn’t necessarily feel welcome, but at the end of the day they found hope in the most unlikely of places. If I had made this a political diatribe, it would’ve become about people being pigeonholed into Democrat versus Republican and that same old tired political argument that we’ve heard for the last eight years. That has nothing to do with it. This has to do with the fact that race and poverty have been window-dressed like so many Christmas windows, and Katrina showed that real human toll. This film tries to put a real face on those eight generations of African-Americans in New Orleans, those families that have been there for 200 years. With Curtis and Clifford giving a voice to those generations, what a good thing that did for us, because they deserve it. They should be college professors for doing so, not 7-dollar-an-hour employees.
Ben: Is that one of the reasons that you chose to focus on Curtis and Clifford specifically? Were they just better representatives of the economic and class implications of this story?
LeMay: You know what, no. It was not something that was that well thought out. It was that Curtis and Clifford were passionate about being heard, and saying, “It’s broken guys—we gotta fix it.” It was almost as if they were waiting for me to get there. And they didn’t do it all at once, but I could tell that these guys had something to say. So we went with our cameras, and this is the story that unfolded in front of us.
Ben: Yeah, and it seems like there’s a real emotional connection there between you and them that really comes across and allows that story to come out. It’s intimate how expressive they get and you really feel that they’re showing as much as they’re showing, first of all, because they need to, but more so because they feel comfortable enough to do so.
LeMay: You know, if you notice, they come in later on in the film—they don’t come in right off the bat. I always like equating making documentaries with some kind of acid jazz, while feature films are more like a four-count rock and roll. It’s a measured thing; you can quantify what’s going on in a feature edit-wise. But with a documentary you have to improvise at every step of the way. They would just disappear for months at a time, or we’d need to go get some more funding, you know… life would happen in between, and that’s why they come on so late in the film. That’s one of the reasons that I think the film works structurally, because it goes from the macro view of what these people now living in Utah is going to be like, to more of a micro view, down to literally two people. All of those larger political implications get funneled into the lives of just two people. And I think that at the end of this, both of those places, (New Orleans and Utah), and both of these people will truly benefit from this exchange.
Ben Poster is a writer and film critic living in Chicago.
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