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Gripping Documentary ‘Katrina Babies’ Looks at the Long-Term Effects of a Natural Disaster

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Published September 7, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


For kids displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the destruction was only the beginning, Buckles' powerful documentary shows. - COURTESY OF HBO/WARNER MEDIA
  • Courtesy of HBO/Warner Media
  • For kids displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the destruction was only the beginning, Buckles' powerful documentary shows.

It's been a quiet hurricane season so far. But in Louisiana, the New York Times reported on Tuesday, people are bracing for the possibility of devastation, as they do every year. Seventeen years ago, Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans and left chaos in its wake.

Since then, with extreme weather events increasingly common worldwide, it's been all too easy to forget about the survivors of past disasters. With Katrina Babies, which won him the title of Best New Documentary Director at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival, Edward Buckles Jr. asks us to remember those people — specifically, people like him, who experienced Katrina as children. Watch the documentary on HBO Max.

The deal

Thirteen years old in August 2005, Buckles was used to riding out hurricanes, like many residents of New Orleans. But his mom sensed something different about the approaching Hurricane Katrina. The family packed up the car and drove hours through bumper-to-bumper traffic to a shelter outside the city.

There, Buckles watched on TV as water rose in the streets of his city, submerging local landmarks. His aunt and cousins, with whom he'd played a few days earlier, were in the path of the flood. He recalls an adult telling him that everyone who'd stayed in New Orleans was dead.

In fact, Buckles' cousins survived the storm; we meet them as adults later in the film. But they, like him, suffer from the lasting effects of loss and displacement.

"In America, especially during disaster, Black children are not even a thought," the director says in voice-over at the start of the film. His purpose is simple: "Nobody ever asked the children how we were doing. So I am."

Will you like it?

We've all seen the footage: kids being airlifted from rooftops. A 9-year-old standing outside the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which was packed with evacuees, and telling the audience of NBC's "Nightly News," "We just need some help out here."

Buckles' film goes beyond the images to explore what was happening in the minds of those children and how their experiences shaped them as they grew. He talks to Arianna Evans, who became famous for that TV sound bite at age 9. He interviews his own aunt and cousins, who also endured the fear and deprivation of the crammed convention center. Another of Buckles' interviewees was diagnosed with cancer after being exposed to unsafe levels of formaldehyde in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer.

Some of the young adults Buckles talks to are angry, others bitterly resigned. They don't trust the government to protect them from future disasters. All of them agree that the New Orleans they knew — a city of tight-knit neighborhoods, "good food" and long traditions — is gone. In Katrina's wake, the documentary reminds us, gentrification transformed the city. White people moved into historically Black neighborhoods, driving up prices and fragmenting long-standing communities, and drug use and violence rose.

It's always risky for a documentarian to turn the camera back on themselves. Narrating the film, Buckles doesn't pretend to be a neutral reporter; he speaks from pain and passion. But his intimate, first-person portrait never feels long-winded or solipsistic, because he gives other "Katrina babies" plenty of room to tell their own stories.

As an adult, Buckles became a high school media teacher. His students talk about growing up in the aftermath of a storm that shaped their lives, whether or not they remember it. At one point, the filmmaker faces the camera and riffs on the loaded concept of "resilience." Some have argued that children simply bounce back from traumas such as Katrina, but the kids' testimony suggests otherwise. "It's not for you to say when I am resilient," Buckles declares. "It's for me."

Clever, collage-style animation by Antoni Sendra brings to life Buckles' neighborhood before the hurricane. Like many documentaries these days, Katrina Babies foregrounds the artifice of some of its images, but in this case, the purpose is to make clear that the film is re-creating a vibrant reality that is forever lost.

News footage can never tell the whole story, the film suggests, in part because reporters don't explore the long-term consequences of events like Katrina, always eager to move on to the next disaster. That's why the voices of survivors matter.

Besides refreshing our memories of a catastrophe that remains all too relevant, Katrina Babies affirms the power of oral history, assisted here by film. "Katrina is becoming a folktale," one interviewee says, "and we're the storytellers."

If you like this, try...

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006; HBO Max, rentable): Spike Lee's devastating four-part documentary chronicles the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise (2010; HBO Max): Four years later, Lee returned to New Orleans to follow up with participants in his previous documentary.

Trouble the Water (2008; Kanopy, AMC+, Doc Club, Sundance Now): During Hurricane Katrina, an aspiring hip-hop artist named Kimberly Rivers Roberts filmed herself and her husband as they watched the water rise from their attic refuge in the Ninth Ward. Her powerful footage is the centerpiece of this award-winning doc that follows the couple before and after the disaster. Roberts would go on to direct her own documentary and appear on the New Orleans-set drama series "Treme."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Katrina Babies 5"

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