Of all the people you'd expect to make a powerful, emotionally resonant (and deeply entertaining) film about the profound systemic failures that turned Hurricane Katrina from a hurricane to a true catastrophe, you might not necessarily peg Harry Shearer, the comedian who, among other things, is a founding member of Spinal Tap and part of the voice cast for "The Simpsons" (he provides the voices for Principal Skinner, Ned Flanders and Mr. Burns, among others). But Shearer, who will be screening his film The Big Uneasy at Stamford's historic Avon Theatre on July 25, really has made an insightful and outstanding documentary about the Katrina disaster.
I spoke to Shearer over the phone about the documentary. The Big Uneasy charts the investigation of a team of independent investigators — scientists, college professors, and a man who travels the world as a kind of disaster detective — look into why the levees broke. Their shattering conclusion: the Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with protecting New Orleans residents, had failed in fundamental ways, with their work more or less ensuring Katrina's apocalyptic toll.
"As a New Orleans resident, we had all been able to see, over the weeks and months after the flood, the interim findings of these investigations into the cause of the flooding," Shearer explained for the reasons he made the documentary. "It was increasingly frustrating to me that we were learning this stuff; people around the country were not, thanks to the national media ignoring this story. They had packed up and left before the flood waters had receded."
More than anything else, though, the film was born out of frustration: "After Obama, in 2009, came to a town hall meeting and called the flooding a ' natural disaster,' I realized he was pandering to ignorance or actively participating in it. The only thing I could think of to overcome that level of national ignorance was a feature-length documentary."
But this isn't some gloomy, homegrown-conspiracy documentary. Not only is it positively sunny — from the pluckily against-all-odds attitude of the scientists involved in the investigation to brief "Ask a New Orleanian" segments hosted by John Goodman, where regular folks are polled about the aftermath — but the case against the Army Corps of Engineers is overwhelmingly documented and frequently substantiated by reporters and civil engineers. Shearer, too, pops up from time to time as a kind of de facto narrator.
"What I knew was that I didn't want to be in front of the story," Shearer says. "I didn't want people to think, 'What is the guy from 'The Simpsons' doing talking to me about engineering?' But I also didn't want some unseen narrator telling the story because when I see a documentary with an unseen narrator, I always think, 'How does he know?'"
What's also striking is how much ground the documentary covers — from an oceanic wall the Corps constructed in the Gulf to the receding coastal wetlands — in its brief 90-minute running time. But the biggest challenge is getting people to pay attention to the film's message. The Big Uneasy was released as a one-night nationwide sneak preview last year on the fifth anniversary of the hurricane ("Because the national media covers the fifth anniversary of pocket lint," Shearer said), but the response was insignificant.
"It's a hurdle which I haven't been able to surmount — getting the national media to pay attention to the story. They've stuck with their narrative of what happened in 2005 and learned nothing in the intervening time. It didn't accomplish its objective," he says.
Shearer now sees the film, which has been strategically released around the country since March, now as a "city-by-city effort to get people to pay attention." And attention should be paid: this is a vital story about a violent storm of government cutbacks, technological hubris and journalistic neglect.
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