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‘Axe’ doc shows Katrina victims’ continued struggle

Talia Whyte

Local filmmakers Ed Pincus and Lucia Small felt the same way many others did in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: outraged by the lack of government response to victims of the horrific storm.

In late 2005, the pair embarked on a 60-day road trip from New England to New Orleans to see what was really happening to Katrina victims. Along the way, they met with evacuees who shared stories of pain, conflict and hope that transcended traditional divisions of race, class and gender.

Those stories leap off the screen in their new documentary, “The Axe in the Attic,” which opened this year’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) last Wednesday.

Through a series of phone calls and Internet searches, the filmmakers located a number of evacuees, all telling different versions of the same tale of frustration with a country they felt failed them.

The first person they met on the trip was Laurel Turner, a single mother from New Orleans’ devastated Lower Ninth Ward who now lives with her family in Pittsburgh. Living in the North has introduced the Turner family to new experiences, like seeing snow for the first time. But viewers can clearly see the burden Turner bears worrying about her rapidly growing financial woes, much of which are owed to still-outstanding payments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Turner blames the U.S. government for not dealing with problems with the city’s compromised levees long before the hurricane ever touched down.

“The government knew about the problem six years ago,” Turner says in the film. “What did they do about it? Nothing.”

The film’s title references the oft-repeated story about the experiences of evacuees fleeing from the floodwaters of Hurricane Betsy in 1965 — in case their homes flooded, Betsy survivors kept axes in their attics to break through their roofs and keep from drowning.

It also serves as a metaphor, the “axe in the attic” standing for the stark realization of the many Katrina victims — both those who stayed and those, like Turner, who left — that they are left to fend for themselves.

As the filmmakers traveled further south, the evacuees’ stories grew more heartbreaking. Many lost family members and livelihoods in the storm. Many believe the slow response to be the result of a U.S. government conspiracy.

Approximately 20,000 people, most of them African American, were placed in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans following the storm, where they waited nearly five days for any help — food, water, sanitation — to come. At the time, according to the film, FEMA claimed it didn’t send any food because it would encourage people to stay in the convention center.

In the film, Larry Miller, a Vietnam veteran who relocated to a FEMA trailer park in northern Alabama, discusses his outrage with the Bush administration’s willingness to focus outside U.S. borders when American citizens were in need of aid.

“Bush didn’t know what was going on in New Orleans,” he says. “He starts wars on seven continents and didn’t know what was happening here.”

The filmmakers said FEMA made it hard for them to interview people living in trailer parks and government officials. At first, Pincus and Small were given permission to interview Joseph Griffen, a father of two living in the Renaissance Village — FEMA’s largest trailer park in Baker, La. — who walks five hours a day to a low-paying job because he can’t afford bus fare. When the filmmakers came to re-interview Griffen again a couple of weeks later, however, they were flatly denied permission by FEMA.

“Where is my government?” asked Pincus during a question-and-answer session following last Wednesday’s MFA screening. “Where will these [evacuees] go? I’ve never seen people like this. You talk to people for five minutes down there and they start to cry.”

Pincus’ emotional response highlighted another of the film’s delicate issues: the subject of ethical documentary filmmaking.

At times in “The Axe and the Attic,” the filmmakers turn the camera on themselves as they show anger about the people they are meeting, even to the point that they argue about giving money to hopeless evacuees. While they say they were using the film as a form of social activism, Small and Pincus acknowledged that giving money to evacuees straddled the thin line of journalistic objectivity.

By the same token, they said, they also felt it was important to film their own reactions to meeting evacuees as a literary device to unify the film.
“We struggled with this daily,” Small said. “It is complicated to film yourself when you see others struggling. They were giving their honest selves, and we felt we needed to be true to the story.”

The filmmakers said they hope “The Axe and the Attic” will cause viewers to realize that despite U.S. media outlets reporting less on Katrina victims now than they once did, many victims are still suffering two-and-a-half years after the storm.

More than that, they said, they hope that their film will spur viewers to do something about it, especially during this election year. A United Nations official who recently toured the Gulf Coast chastised the Bush administration last Wednesday for continuing to neglect those displaced by the storm.

“The Bush administration is beyond disaster,” Pincus said, “but this problem won’t end when [President Bush] leaves office. The film is not made to make people feel bad for Katrina victims. It is really a call to action.”

“The Axe in the Attic” runs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through Jan. 31. For more information on the film, visit