Getting Back to Abnormal

PBS Premiere: July 14, 2014Check the broadcast schedule »

A History of Documentary Film in New Orleans

This article was first published by Louisiana Cultural Vistas. View the original at

Election Day, March 1986, and we're filming on a cold, late afternoon in the bleak and mostly deserted Desire Housing projects. Mayoral hopeful Bill Jefferson is looking for hands to shake and I ask my cameraman to follow close behind him, make him look like Moses parting the waters of the few curious spectators. Around a corner, some teenagers are playing basketball on a pitted rectangle of blacktop. Jefferson takes a shot, an awkward air ball, then removes his sports jacket and swooshes the next one thru a net that's torn and hanging by a couple of threads. "What a shot" someone yells. Then he walks off into the distance and we leave to go film other places before the light fades and the polls close.

Driving out of the projects, we see an old man walking down the street, pulling up campaign signs and stakes, one by one. He wants the wood. We pull ahead of him, quickly get the camera on a tripod, just in time to frame him. Picking up one sign. Then another. Then a third. Then moving out of frame. And suddenly, off camera, he pulls a sign off its stake, one of Jefferson's, and tosses it into air behind him so that it, and Jeff's image, falls softly back into the picture.

-- Among Brothers: Politics in New Orleans (1986)

It was the kind of magic moment that you wish for in filming documentaries. It also reminds me of my own excitement back then, being a transplant in New Orleans, a place whose history, music, culture, whose everything seemed begging to be filmed in my young filmmaker's eyes.

Back then, our small film community revolved around a video access center (NOVAC), the Contemporary Arts Center's screening program, and the work generated by feature film productions like Pretty Baby, Down by Law, and Cat People. Glen Pitre had just finished the early Sundance favorite Belizaire the Cajun and photographer Michael P. Smith was introducing filmmakers to the local culture of second lines and Mardi Gras Indians that would later appear in his amazing book Spirit World. Michael Sartisky, in the tiny Howard Avenue LEH office, was increasing funding for documentaries. And I was making the transition from teaching politics at Tulane to film and had just met two young established New Orleans filmmakers, Louis Alvarez and Andy Kolker, who'd made their first feature, The Ends of the Earth, about Plaquemines Parish Judge Leander Perez.

Three decades later, long after we'd left the city, Andy, Louis, and I (along with our fellow producer, Peter Odabashian) came back to the city we'd started in and never forgotten, making a new film about race and politics and New Orleans after the storm, Getting Back to Abnormal. And as its national PBS broadcast drew near (July 14th on the POV series), I started to look back at the treasure trove of past New Orleans documentaries that our work is part of.


New Orleans is no stranger to being depicted on film. The images of Mardi Gras, jazz musicians and parades are familiar to most Americans. It's also been a palette for many a screenwriter's fantasy. And while Marlon Brando may have bellowed for Stella on a Hollywood set for the movie version of A Streetcar Named Desire, some films used actual locations in New Orleans. That's really Elvis on a French Quarter balcony, in King Creole, singing to a passing street vendor. From Panic in the Streets to the Mardi Gras acid trip scene in Easy Rider to Cat People, Down by Law and David Simon's Treme, that's New Orleans up on screen.

While some New Orleans documentary work predates the '70s -- most prominently The Children Were Watching (1961), about school desegregation made by American documentary pioneer Robert Drew -- the start of an indigenous documentary community stems from the 1971 founding of the NOVAC, an activist video organization that started out making videos like How to Get a Grievance Hearing, Must You Pay the Rent, and Police Brutality - Part 1 (they never did make Part 2). In the mid-70's, NOVAC's young video-makers, Alvarez and Kolker, along with Stevenson Palfi, Burwell Ware, and Eddie Kurtz began making work about broader cultural subjects. This Cat Can Play Anything (1978), a gem made by Kolker, Kurtz and Palfi, starred Preservation Hall banjo jazzman Manny Sayles. Ware's short Cheap and Greasy (1977) featured the old Hummingbird Grill. And then there's Alvarez and Kolker's Being Poor in New Orleans local TV series, particularly The Clarks (1979), a portrait of a family living in the since demolished St. Thomas housing project.

The first feature length documentaries in New Orleans then focused on the iconic parts of New Orleans, music, festivals, and the breath of the cultural landscape, from Uptown and working class whites to urban black and Creole. And the best of these films remain some of the more memorable three decades later.

Palfi's Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together (1982) brought three generations of New Orleans pianists, Isadore "Tuts" Washington, Henry "Professor Longhair" Byrd, and Allen Toussaint, together to play. It's a remarkable preservation piece, the virtuosos on three pianos practicing for a public performance. But Professor Longhair died of a heart attack before the performance could take place, and Palfi instead captured his funeral, brass bands playing in the street and Toussaint singing inside over the casket. The film concludes back at the practice, the three pianists playing a joyful blues, each taking solos, and looking delighted.

Yes Ma'am (1982) was made by Gary Goldman, who'd moved back to his hometown to work on Louis Malle's Pretty Baby. He proceeded to burn every bridge he could, peeling back the covers of the lives of black domestics and their white employers, especially the unconsciously honest children of privilege. One particularly memorable story was of a little girl, told she couldn't sleep downstairs with her maid, covering herself in mud and running into her house screaming "I'm black, I'm black." The film is like Driving Miss Daisy and The Help meeting the Uptown New Orleans society stories of Ellen Gilchrist. Pulling no punches, it aired on PBS nationally, but never screened in New Orleans until 2011.

The late Les Blank's seminal Always for Pleasure (1978) remains the touchstone for filming music and people dancing in the streets of New Orleans. Blank, already a well-known documentarian of American roots music, was on his way to make a film in Columbia, when he stopped in New Orleans for a folklore conference. He met Michael Smith, who invited him to a second line parade. Blank was transfixed, and decided to stay. What he produced is a feast of festivals, second lines, a hall of fame lineup of musicians, and the voices of New Orleanians. I've never forgotten a smiling black woman, enjoying carnival day but knowing the difference between partying and reality in her city. "If you want to be white today, you can be white today. Superman. Batman. Robin Hood. You can be whatever you want to be today. But now tomorrow? You got to be a nigger tomorrow." So one makes do with the joy you can find. As the text on screen tells us: "When you're dead, you're gone. Long live the living!"

While Alvarez and Kolker's first feature, The Ends of the Earth (1982), isn't a "New Orleans" film, the action was just down the highway in the Plaquemines Parish swamps. It's a visit to a vanished world, of Orange Queen contests, nutria hunters, French speaking Creoles, and the marshes before they began to vanish, before and after the hurricanes. What starts as a portrait of the parish leads to the story of arch segregationist Judge Leander Perez and the doomed efforts of his feuding sons, Chalin and Leander Jr., to stay in power in the first unrigged parish election in half a century. Three years later, Alvarez and Kolker finished Yeah, You Rite!, a half-hour documentary on New Orleans dialects where Yat meets Uptown meets urban black accents. And even if an accent typecast you, as one man put it: "I don't want to go thru the process of making my tongue do the stuff you have to do to talk right, why put forth the effort, everybody knows me, ain't that right."

Other notable documentaries included the work of John Beyer, at the local PBS affiliate, WYES, films on football (The Men of LSU, 1982), jazz icons (Pete!, 1980), and food (Hot Stuff: The Restaurants of New Orleans), all narrated with a wicked, sarcastic sense of humor, and employing music as only a music lover would. Eddie Kurtz was making his irreverent Real New Orleans series. Karen Synder's short View from the Stoop (1983) was about the art of sitting on a stoop "looking for the breeze and finding a cool spot." Neil Alexander followed a high school band in Get Down Street Sound (1984). And stretching the bounds of what constituted conflict of interest, I made that film that captured Bill Jefferson on election-day, Among Brothers: Politics in New Orleans (1986), about the race between two African-American candidates to succeed the city's first black mayor, Dutch Morial, even though I was also Jefferson's pollster and analyzing the election on local news nightly. Only in New Orleans.


It's an unseasonably hot October day and we've driven a ways out into the swamps downriver from New Orleans, looking for the dedication of a forlorn piece of newly paved highway. It's our last chance in the 1987 election campaign to interview Governor Edwin Edwards, running for reelection. Having survived two Grand Jury indictments, though, his hijinks have finally caught up to him in the form of reform candidate Buddy Roemer. With no news crews around to film the listless ribbon cutting, we have the Governor all to ourselves. He's dispirited at the prospect of losing, but our final question suddenly lights the old Edwin magic. "Who's the greatest politician you've seen in your lifetime" we ask. With a twinkle in his eye he answers "every time I shave and look in the mirror, I see him."

-- Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics (1992)

It wasn't our intent to make a Louisiana political history film. Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics (1992) came about because the 1987 gubernatorial election that Alvarez, Kolker and I had tried to document had almost little drama. Edwards even dropped out after making the runoff. That potential storytelling failure, though, became an unplanned opportunity when we dug into our own collection of archival footage to focus on the state's unique political culture and history. Besides a cast of colorful rogues, we featured sequences on political advertising on the old Schwegmann's grocery store's shopping bags, and unusual attack ads like one for district attorney that featured a supposedly soft-on-crime candidate's face superimposed onto a dripping Mr. Softee ice cream cone. And then there's footage of a younger, more upbeat Edwin Edwards, saying the only way he could lose an election was to be found in bed with a live boy or a dead girl.

The most interesting New Orleans films from the mid-80s up through the storm were histories, with Ken Burns' Huey Long (1985) the first of national note. Before making multi-hour series that took longer to make than the wars they covered took to fight, Burns came down to Louisiana to film. His film is about power and ethics and an unforgettable character in the larger than life "dictator" of Louisiana. Any film with Robert Penn Warren reading from his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel All the King's Men is something very special. Plus there's late Betty Carter, the wife of the crusading editor Hodding Sr., posed in front of the gorgeous patterned upholstery of a high backed chair in her Uptown New Orleans home, matter of factly commenting "I can't remember any Saturday night, that I went anywhere, that we didn't talk about killing Huey Long."

There are plenty of other histories to choose from. Rick Smith's heartfelt bio of Huey's colorful, if not crazy brother, Earl Long (Uncle Earl, 1986) featured wonderful old footage, especially around the time of Earl's being committed to a mental institution and his subsequent escape. Treme writer Lolis Eric Elie and Dawn Logsdon interwove a history of black New Orleans with the rebuilding of Elie's flood damaged house in Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans (2008). Rebecca Snedeker took us on her very personal inside look at the history of Mardi Gras society in By Invitation Only (2008). And there were a series of films, made at WYES, about the various ethnic histories of the city -- Irish, Italians, Germans and Jews -- along with Peggy LaBorde's many programs down memory lane about her city.

Two national PBS productions, Burns' multi-part Jazz series and the American Experience's two-hour New Orleans, also tackled the city's history. New Orleans (2007) is set in the context of Katrina and the question of what America would be without New Orleans. Sequences that chart the city's history are interwoven with contemporary portraits of people making do after Katrina. Leah Chase cooking, workers repairing tombs in an above ground cemetery, the first post-storm carnival, along with interviews with historians, writers and artists. One memorable irony is that years after being arrested on a streetcar and losing the historic Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, the light skinned Homer Plessy successfully registered as "white" in order to vote.

Jazz (2000), after a montage of fabulous archival film and photos, goes back to where the music began, with its mix of peoples and cultures, where "there was a whole lot of integrating going on." African roots, Caribbean sounds, the religious songs of the slave South, the "mania" of Creoles of color for horns, minstrels and ragtime make a "roux" mixed with dancing and Delta blues. And so you begat jazz. Plus there's the ever-present Wynton Marsalis mimicking horn melodies vocally and demonstrating how one can even transform the Stars and Stripes Forever into jazz.

Then there's Storyville: The Naked Dance (1997), which covers much of the same ground, but gets you feeling the heat and the funk of the city. Maia Harris and Anne Craig's film is about America's most famous red light district of legalized prostitution and there's lots of photographic (and graphic) nudity, including the famous Bellocq photos. There's also a fictional first person narrative voice of an older prostitute, looking back at the history and lives of the people who made up the district, making Madam Lulu White, jazzmen Buddy Bolden and Jelly Roll Morton, and regular working girls come to life. And then there's the storytellers, Al Rose, whose Storyville history was the basis for Pretty Baby, and the musician/writer Danny Barker, both passed on now. When Barker does his voices of what he calls the "do wrong people" district, like vegetable peddler Meatball Charley -- "I got bananas today ladies. I got apples. I got oranges. I got sweet potatoes and I've got onions. And I've got some other things, everything a lonesome woman needs" -- you can close your eyes and think you really are in living history.

KATRINA 2005-2011

In the wake of Katrina, it seemed like every documentary filmmaker in America headed towards New Orleans. Spike Lee made his big budget HBO films, Jonathan Demme came to the Lower 9th for I'm Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful (2011) and early cinéma vérité icon Ed Pincus made his last film, The Axe in the Attic (2007). Frontline weighed in (The Old Man and the Storm, 2009) and there were films about the Vietnamese community mobilizing against a post-storm dump (A Village Called Versailles, 2009), a lovely film about pets lost and sometimes found after Katrina (Mine, 2009), and the reunion put on by a Creole jazz man (Michelle Benoit and Glen Pitre's American Creole, 2006), among many others.

The makers of the Oscar-nominated Trouble the Water (2008) literally walked into their star, evacuee Kimberly Roberts, outside a refugee center in Lafayette. She asked if they'd be interested in her home movies of the storm. She'd narrated them as she filmed, even filming as the waters climbed up her stairs, forcing her to escape thru the roof. The footage is amazing and this tour de force only gets better following her and her husband on their two-year journey after the storm.

It was in this context, since everyone else had seemingly made a film about New Orleans, we thought why not go back ourselves, to see how the city had recreated itself after the storm.


It's a few nights before the Mardi Gras, February 2011, one of those winter evenings when a northern cold front meets warm air up from the Gulf and the city gets real foggy and damp. We're waiting outside a small Mid City shotgun with Barbara Lacen-Keller, community activist and aide to Councilwoman Stacy Head, who's holding VIP tickets to tonight's Zulu Ball. She wants us to meet her dates. Suddenly, two shapes begin to appear in the fog. Tall, in long gowns and high heels. They're also guys. Barbara introduces us to Miss Serenity and Ms. Legacy, grinning at our expressions as we shoot. Then they're down the porch, stepping into a waiting limo, Barbara waving at us with a prediction of the ball to come. "Guess what. I don't have a man tonight, but I will have one when I leave."

-- Getting Back to Abnormal (2014)

After the tidal wave of Katrina coverage, we came back to make Getting Back to Abnormal, in part because it seemed to us that many of those "Katrina" films, made by filmmakers who'd never lived in the city, had settled for simplistic narratives that didn't reflect a city that defied easy definition. The city we knew. It's a city of contradictions, where the culture of Mardi Gras and street parades is also a culture of corruption and inefficiency, of bad schools and high crime, where the city and its inhabitants -- both powerful and not -- have often been complicit in their own misfortune. Underlying everything, of course, was race. The challenge was to find a tapestry of stories that also didn't ignore the humor that's part of the city's DNA, giving the viewer a real sense of what it's like to live in the city. And so we found a main narrative with the 2010 reelection campaign of City Councilwoman Stacy Head, a take-no-prisoners white reformer, and her irrepressible and unlikely companion-in-arms, Barbara Lacen-Keller, a respected black community organizer who gave new meaning to the word "outspoken."

We also discovered something else during our three years filming. There's a vibrant community of young filmmakers, some of them natives who'd survived Katrina, others who'd come to New Orleans, not just to document the aftermath of the storm, but to stay. And just like us, thirty years before, they're curious about everything in New Orleans.

Two film examples are Luisa Dantas' Land of Opportunity (2010) and Lily Keber's Bayou Maharajah (2013). Dantas, a Brazilian-American and a graduate of Columbia's film school, came right after the disaster to document recovery efforts led by ACORN. She commuted from LA for a while and then moved permanently in 2006. Keber had previously visited the city, graduated from the University of Georgia, and just decided to move, doing community media and bar tending at Vaughan's. Both of them met Tim Watson, an editor on Storyville and By Invitation Only, and eventually moved into edit rooms in his converted Bywater warehouse.

Bayou Maharajah is a glorious biographic homage to pianist James Booker, a truly crazy genius, dead now thirty years and mostly unknown, except for a select few. The music is sublime, the stories are funny, and Booker is an unforgettable character. And near its end, when the film features Booker playing one long song in its entirety, it's like hearing a supreme being on the keyboards. Maybe better.

Land of Opportunity charts the lives of New Orleanians, displaced and otherwise, as the city tries to rebuild itself. The film is there when the first street lights are turned back on in the 9th Ward and stays with its characters as they figure out what's next. Perhaps its most important long-term achievement, though, is the project's evolution into an award winning interactive web based platform, where people come park their footage and others can come and use what's there.

These days there's a rush of new documentaries, tackling the reality of a city that's been changed by the tragedy of Katrina, but that retains much of what made it the unique. There are new films about youth and gun violence (Shell Shocked, 2013), Mardi Gras Indians after the storm (Bury the Hatchet, 2011), the transformation of New Orleans' schools (Rebirth, 2013), a history of gay New Orleans (The Sons of Tennessee Williams, 2010), even a new effort to resurrect the late Stevenson Palfi's Allen Toussaint tapes, with more projects on the way. And there's a buzz of activity at Pitre and Benoit's converted Bywater fire station, where the makers of Beasts of the Southern Wild and others work, among other spots.

For us old New Orleans documentary vets, just thinking about the youngsters roaming the same streets where we started filming so long ago is to remind us what we saw when the city was new to us. Who'll be the latest in a long line to ponder how they can film a Mardi Gras parade, or a second line, or the Quarter, and make it somehow look different. Or, maybe more importantly, discover what's changing in New Orleans, film it, and make the familiar new. Not all those filmmakers will succeed. But some of them will make films where you feel the pain and the joy of the city that frustrates us and that we love. And that's just wonderful.

Paul Stekler lives in Austin where he teaches documentary filmmaking at the University of Texas. He produced Getting Back to Abnormal along with Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker and Peter Odabashian, which airs nationally on PBS's POV series on July 14th.

This article was first published by Louisiana Cultural Vistas. View the original at

View Paul Stekler's list of essential documentaries about New Orleans.