JDIFF: 'The Big Uneasy' with Harry Shearer Q&A

| February 23, 2011 | Comments (0)


(Pic: Harry Shearer in New Orleans)

WRI/DIR: Harry Shearer • PRO: Karen Murphy, Christine O’Reilly • DOP:Arlene Nelson• ED: Tom Roche • Special Appearance by  John Goodman • Voice Over: Brad Pitt, Jennifer Coolidge.

IFI, 6:30pm, Tuesday, 22nd February 2011

A documentary written and directed by sometime New Orleans resident Harry Shearer, of Spinal Tap and Simpsons fame,  along with my pre-conceived ideas, a deliberate lack of research on the film I was about to see, and an introduction containing Mr Burns saying ‘release the hounds’, led me to believe plenty of laughs were in the offing over the next 93 minutes. Something from the Sacha Baron Cohen style of ‘documentary’ as those in authority are made to look silly through Shearer’s razor sharp wit and deadpan interviewing style. I was wrong.

In his introduction the the film last Tuesday night in the IFI, Shearer said he was motivated to make the documentary when President Obama, on his first visit to New Orleans, described Hurricane Katrina and the resulting flooding as ‘a natural disaster’, but, as The Big Uneasy shows in forensic detail, the root cause of the disaster was actually human error and incompetant structural engineering which could easily happen in other locations in the USA.

Staff of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Centre and other academics started their poorly funded investigation into why so many levees, 28 in all, broke to flood 80% of the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The levees were built by the Army Corps of Engineers, not civil engineering contractors, and they were designed and built incorrectly with the devastating results we all saw on our TV screens in 2005. However they are the also the ones rebuilding the levees.  Families of those who were killed are attempting to sue them and the federal government but their case has been weakened by the intimidation of whistleblowers and expert witnesses. One of the most vocal critics of the Army Corps-built levees, the South African Dr Ivor Van Heerden was fired from his post at Lousiana State University after his book on the engineering failings of the levees, The Storm, was published.

Shearer’s name undoubtedly gets the documentary to a wider audience, however it is not a very cinematic piece.  He rarely appears on camera and doesn’t concentrate on the tragedy or the emotional human story behind Katrina, instead the bass player of Spinal Tap‘and voice of Mr Burns and Kent Brockman from The Simpsons deals with academics,  sand, silt, pumps, concrete, engineering, ecology, wetlands, flooding, and almost inevitably incompetance, corruption and government cover up. It is rooted in facts and measurables, makes a compelling arguement, and should, at the very least, be seen by engineering students around the world.

Fellow New Orleans resident John Goodman appears to add some levity to the piece asking questions that the misinformed outside of New Orleans asked such as ‘4 years on is the city still flooded?’, ‘could the city be moved somewhere else?’ and Brad Pitt, who also has a home in New Orleans,  does some of the voice over work.  Both Goodman and Pitt agreed do appear with one phone call or email accoridng to Shearer.

In the Q&A chaired by 2FM’s Rick O’Shea, Shearer revealed that the Army Corp of Engineers have made no response to the film. The Commandant, a man by the name of ‘Von Antwerp’, made a lot of noise to get a copy of the film but to the best of Shearer’s knowledge had yet to see it. The Army Corps of Engineers don’t look backward only forward, ‘a good way to make the same mistakes again’ quipped Shearer.

Shearer’s orignal aim was to get the documentary screened on the 5 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on 29th August  2010, and while there were journalists in New Orelans with standard ‘right where I’m standing 5 years ago the water was up to here’ news reports, not one mentioned the story in the documentary. In one revealing example of the media’s attitude to New Orleans, nine months after Katrina hit Shearer asked a ‘well known news anchor’, whom he knew ‘before he arose to anchorhood’, why the findings of the poor engineering of the levees was not being reported . The anser he was given was ‘we just feel that emotive stories are more interesting for our audience’. Shearer did, however, appreciate the unnamed news anchor’s honesty.

The parallels and contrasts with 9/11 are shown as the families in New York received billions of  compensations from the federal governement but New Orleans residents have not. Shearer put that down simply to the media being located in New York, their attitutde to New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina was ‘yeah, we’ve done that’. He also believed that two of the landmark horrors of the disaster, The Convention Centre and the Superdome were covered by the media because they were located near the first off-ramp from the highway, he said if you went the other side of New Orleans, which was difficult to get to, there were thousands of white people on their rooves in a district without food or water in 30 degree heat for four days.  This was not a disaster that just hit the poor black people of New Orleans, it effected everyone.

This documentary would warrent another viewing to take in the legal and engineering complexities, and next time I would be prepared and have my engineers hat on and leave my Borat moustache and mankini somewhere else.

Gordon Gaffney


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