Good documentaries provide the viewer with an intimate perspective of a person, place, event or period of time. A great documentary either simply educates, if unbiased, or improves social awareness by immersing people in the world being documented. Renaiassance Village, while admirable in it’s intended goal, ultimately fails to adequately tell the complete story, thereby threatening to leave the viewer feeling confused and phlegmatic… much like the people it portrays. The effect Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had on New Orleans, and the surrounding areas, went way beyond tragic. It was a disaster of biblical proportions. Millions were left homeless and with very few options. Some had very little, or nothing at all, before they were displaced by the storm. Eventually, those poor souls are the ones that this movie is really about.
The movie opens with a short clip of a young, freckle-faced boy of about eleven talking directly to the camera. “Can I swear?” he asks, candidly. He then, suddenly, launches a string of obscenities that sounds like someone with tourette syndrome. After the opening credits, narration by Wendell Pierce quickly fills in details about how inadequately FEMA was prepared to respond to a disaster of the scale after the twin storms. Information is given about the temporary shelters used, like sports arenas, that provided little in the way of living. After only a short time FEMA purchased thousands of mobile homes but, because of local building codes preventing the installation of said homes in the flood delta region of Louisiana, they were never used. Quickly, FEMA then purchased recreational vehicle travel trailers, or RVs, and set them up in small parks. The largest of which, with approximately five hundred trailers and three thousand residents, was set up ninety-one miles from New Orleans in Baker, Louisiana and dubbed “Renaissance Village.”
Writer/director/producer Gabe Chasnoff of NTI Upstream, a “community education” publishing and production company, obviously wanted to provide a face (five, actually) to help personalize the suffering that too many endured because of beauracratic mistakes and outright failures. However, a film that should be either informative, showing factual details of the agencies and people involved, that allows the viewer to find the real “villain,” or biographical, allowing a deeply intimate and humanitarian connection between the viewer and victim, never manages to be either. Instead, we are left with too many questions, too few details and too little face time with meaningful dialogue to make any of those associations.
For example, one of the “five faces” is Thelma. She is introduced cooking authentic soul food with her friend Gwendolyn and together they ruminate about many of the subsistence foods of their impoverished youth. They also discuss the racism and social inequalities they faced fifty years ago and how much of the same injustices remain. Later, Thelma says that she’s getting out of Renaissance Village and moving back to the small town in Mississippi where she was born. Thelma is then seen, one last time, being hugged by Gwendolyn as the two cry, complaining about losing her trailer and how inadequate the money offered by FEMA is. There is no real explanation about her situation, what her life was like before the hurricane, no resolution about where she will end up and no details about what, exactly, happened to her and why. At least Thelma is portrayed with a certain amount of dignity and hope. Many of the other, less reputable citizens, are seen in the same light.
Some residual characters are seen for only a moment, like the foul-mouthed young boy from the introduction, and tend to add only insult to injury. One older man is shown smiling and laughing with a woman he met in a shelter before both were relocated to Renaissance Village. Instead of leaving people with that touching image the gentleman is later shown drinking straight from a very large plastic bottle of vodka and slurring into the camera that he can’t survive on less than two bottles of whiskey a day.
If the entire movie had been about only one of the inhabitants of Renaissance Village like Paul the mechanic, who quietly admits he was diagnosed HIV positive while trying to sell blood plasma to survive, or Wilbert Ross, the unofficial President of the Renaissance Village citizens committee, the film may have been more satisfying and inspiring. Instead, the disjointed story telling, incomplete vignettes and lack of continuity detract too much from what is, unquestionably, a story that needs to be told. Even with first rate editing and an almost perfect soundtrack, it’s possible to say that this eighty-five minute movie may have been vastly improved with just fifteen more minutes of narration and dialogue. Otherwise, it’s difficult to recommend this film to anyone but the most clinically curious about the worst natural disaster in American history.
Gabe Chasnoff (director) / Gabe Chasnoff, Lou Karsen (screenplay)