Ginny Martin and Kate Browne, Producers. Still Waiting: Life After Katrina. C. 2007. Reviewed by Heather Nicholson, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
Media reports of the devastation in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina captured the fascination of the American public. Audiences watched as thousands of individuals were stranded in their homes and in the Convention Center during one of the worst storms in New Orleans history. News of theft, violence, and instability crowded the airwaves as the hurricane and subsequent floods destroyed thousands of homes and neighborhoods. In the aftermath, serious questions were posed: did racial and class politics cause a delay in rescue and relief, distort news coverage, and prevent the United States government from coming to the aid of thousands of its citizens? These questions led to overwhelming public support and a presidential address that promised millions of dollars in relief and rebuilding efforts. Still Waiting questions whether it is possible to rebuild and recapture what has been lost and whether those promises of assistance have been kept.
  "This documentary film provides an intimate look at one family's loss and how Katrina fractured not only their individual lives but also an entire communal system of values, culture, and heritage."  

Still Waiting: Life After Katrina follows one multi-generational family of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and children who fled St. Bernard's Parish, Louisiana, to Dallas, Texas, before the storm and chronicles their lives as they look back at their history, deal with the devastating losses, and attempt to restore hope and rebuild homes and communities. This documentary film provides an intimate look at one family's loss and how Katrina fractured not only their individual lives but also an entire communal system of values, culture, and heritage.

Filmmaker Ginny Martin and anthropologist Kate Browne co-produced the documentary in order to examine three main matriarchal characters post Katrina, tracing the decisions each makes in the wake of Katrina and the consequences of these choices on their lives. One fundamental issue Martin and Brown focus on is the decision of whether or not to return to New Orleans in the wake of the massive destruction and despair that Katrina created. For many members of the family, St. Bernard's Parish represents more than a place they call home. It is also a place where families for generations have lived side by side and have developed a community of networks and friendships. It is home to familiar sights, sounds, and smells. This familiarity and comfort drive the desire for many to return home and commit to the rebuilding process. As one historian in the film notes, New Orleans has more native residents than any other city; some still live in the neighborhood they grew up in. The longing to return home speaks to their desire to return to their culture, rightful heritage, and of course to go "back to the way things were." 

But for others in the film, going back home is too difficult. Returning to the devastating loss of homes, churches, schools, and businesses only brings despair and remorse. Home resembles a "third world country" and bears the painful reminder of what has been lost. Home is no longer a place where everyone clusters with children and grandchildren near or where neighbors drop in for conversation, or family and friends for food. Dr. Watson, a mental health educator from the University of New Orleans describes, it as "ripping the anchor away . . . the core family is gone." Without the core family, the traditional riches and memory cannot be preserved and New Orleans no longer represents the place many know as home.

Can the rebuilding process mend this rupture in the communal system? As the documentary progresses, this question becomes a central focus. The brief "feeling of elation" upon returning home to rebuild soon turns to bitter resentment and frustration as promises go unmet. Residents find little solace in living in mobile homes in the midst of scarce jobs, racist employment practices, and unkept promises about aid for the rebuilding efforts. African American residents return home with the will, spirit, and commitment to work towards bettering their community and lives only to feel dejected by the government's failure to adequately respond to their needs.  

Martin and Browne's documentary allow us to revisit Katrina and to fully understand the extent to which the disaster has destroyed the lives of individuals and their communities. It also raises important questions and poignantly underscores the failure of the United States government to care for its citizens.

Some viewers will likely find frustrating the film's extensive focus on a single family network. This approach has the virtue of preventing the film from becoming mired in policy issues, media reports, and politics. While instructive, this documentary style does not allow the audience a better understanding of the cultural and historical significance of New Orleans. Nor does it allow the audience to analyze what went wrong. Why hasn't the government been able to provide relief funds and support? Have racial and class politics plagued rebuilding efforts?  A fuller discussion of the historical and cultural lineage of the families presented in the film, a more in-depth discussion of the racial and class make-up of New Orleans, and local rebuilding efforts would have helped to contextualize the film more. However, the filmmaker's decision to focus squarely on the experiences of the three main characters gives us an intimate look at their family networks, culture, and history that were irrevocably destroyed by Katrina. Still Waiting: Life After Katrina is an instructive film for educators, students, and the general populace to reconsider their role and ask themselves the central question: how can we help those who are still waiting?

Heather Nicholson


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