Fri, Sep 08, 2006 - Page 17 News List

America bares its soul at Venice

Spike Lee's documentary on New Orleans wins hearts and minds as US movies dominate the Venice Film Festival


The pretty stretch of land that makes up the Lido seems a strange place to watch the US conduct its soul-searching but the opening films of the 63rd Venice film festival have been riven with US guilt, corruption and violence. The Borgias would have been proud.

Venice is also an eerily apt place for the unveiling of one of the year's great film achievements, Spike Lee's four-hour New Orleans documentary, When the Levees Broke. Subtitled A Requiem in Four Acts, it is an epic inquiry into the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, using a montage of archive news coverage, found film, new testimonies from a wide range of Orleanians and extraordinary still photos set to a plaintive jazz score. Lee was in Venice 12 months ago when news of the flood reached him. He watched the events unfold with the same horror as everyone else, but his restless creativity meant that, after filming his slick thriller Inside Man, he pursued his own autopsy of the disaster.

Unsurprisingly, his angry fingers point at the Bush administration, making the US President George W. Bush look far shiftier and more incompetent than Michael Moore ever did. But it is the skill with which Lee channels his anger into this spellbinding documentary that is perhaps most admirable, letting his images and eloquent interviewees speak volumes. Aside from brief chats with Sean Penn and Kanye “Bush don't like black people” West, Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard are among the best known jazz musicians to appear on camera, steeped in New Orleans to their very soul. “Actor and activist” Harry Belafonte bristles with indignation and Mayor Ray Nagin is fascinating. However, the unknown voices are the most effective, a chorus of desolation, telling stories that defy belief, of dead relatives drowned in their attics, of families dispersed throughout America.

Amid this flood of fairly wild accusations invoking racism and murder in the highest echelons of government, it's impossible not to believe Lee sees Katrina and its aftermath as a kind of black Holocaust, and this feels like his equivalent to Claude Lanzmann's Shoah. Lee is an underrated documentarist (Four Little Girls, for example, is brilliant). This film should change that, although it would be good to see a shorter version to help it gain the wider audience it so deserves.

As Marsalis says during the film: “This is a great moment in American history — we're catching ourselves in the mirror and it's ugly.” And in a rather gruelling yet hypnotic afternoon/evening, Lee's film was followed by Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. As soon as this opens, with Nic Cage looking in on his sleeping kids before he goes off to work on the fateful day, traditional film techniques — compared to documentary — seem an inadequate language for capturing actualities.

WTC is very cheesy in parts, almost by necessity, but the early sequences are grimly compelling and ghoulishly thrilling in the manner of United 93. There's also something Beckettian about Cage and Michael Pena, just a pair of mouths covered in the rubble and dust and talking for hours, though this aspect gets disappointingly sidelined in favor of corny flashbacks to happier times (Cage fixing the roof and kids asking about baseball) and scenes of Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello making lots of anguished phone calls. Interestingly, it's a very white film with hardly any black characters, which made me wonder about the proportions of Sept. 11's mythological power and importance as an event. As someone in New Orleans points out: “We got debris here of over 25 World Trade Centers.”

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