What does it mean to be exiled in your own country? Drawn together by outrage, documentary filmmakers Ed Pincus and Lucia Small embark on a sixty-day road trip from New England to Louisiana, and ultimately into the Hurricane Katrina devastation zone to meet evacuees who have lost their homes. They make the uneasy choice of integrating themselves into the story, “because when you’re two white northerners heading South, remaining behind the camera just doesn’t feel like an option.”
When the film opens, it is six months since Katrina hit New Orleans and the levees breached causing the largest internal migration in American history. We first see the eerie beauty and horror of the shattered landscape, draped in heavy fog and emptied of its residents.
The story of an American Diaspora unfolds – the displaced struggling with loss of home, family, and culture. Emotions range from deep pain to surprising humor, as filmmakers and subjects tackle questions of race, class, and our government's failure to protect its own.
The Axe in the Attic documents the natural and human landscape of Katrina and how evacuees adjust to new environs – some achingly familiar and others wholly alien. Having lost everything, they seek safety and comfort however they can. Amid the grieving and isolation, family, church, cell phones, and consumer goods become life support.
The filmmakers encounter a range of evacuees grappling with the daily grind of their altered lives – from a close-knit African American family that comes from the Lower Ninth in New Orleans to start over in the wintry hills of suburban Pittsburgh, to a single, white working mother raising two teenagers living in a condo on the outskirts of Cincinnati, to Baker, Louisiana, where the residents of FEMA’s largest trailer park (“Renaissance Village,” with almost 600 trailers) live as if in a refugee camp.
As the filmmakers approach the hurricane zone, the mood darkens. A surreal atmosphere of calm prevails as days are spent managing endless government and insurance paperwork. Disillusionment runs rampant. Health problems abound. Spouses argue about the future. Grown men weep. Most are still in shock and reeling from the monumental task of starting over. Hope emerges as evacuees cope in myriad ways – by shifting from harrowing tales to humor, or by recreating the foods and smells of their lost homes. Above all they seek meaning in what has happened to them.
Their search for meaning in the world resonates with the filmmakers, whose life experiences bring two different, frequently competing viewpoints to the story. Their personal perspectives shape their filmmaking choices at every turn, becoming an undercurrent of The Axe in the Attic. As they encounter difficult choices and awkward situations with some subjects, they question their approach and the ethics of documentary filmmaking.
The consequences of a breakdown of trust between a government and its citizens, and the capacity of human beings to survive and endure with dignity, form the backdrop for this universal story of the search for home.
Directed by Ed Pincus and Lucia Small
2007, 110 minutes
Study Guide available
Purchase: $310 Classroom Rental: $125
* World Premiere, New York Film Festival, 2007
* Official Selection, Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, 2008
* Official Selection, Full Frame Documentary Festival, 2008
* Official Selection, Cinema du Reel, 2008
"This is a shattering documentary." - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
“One of the most challenging and unsettling American films of the year.” - Cinema Scope
“This moving, inspirational, and painful film is an important contribution to Katrina-related material. Highly recommended for all viewers.” - Library Journal
“The film's about rediscovering our common humanity - pushing through the flat screen of TV footage to connect with the Katrina victims as individuals. Some of the moral dilemmas the filmmakers face are eerie, micro-size versions of the greater national response.” – Boston Globe
“A much-needed reminder that the restoration of New Orleans and the devastated Gulf Coast communities has been woefully inept. Recommended” - Video Librarian
"Refreshing, timely, and smartly provocative. The film is a portrait of painful changes wrought by Katrina and government ineptitude. But it is even more a portrait of how people and communities deal with crisis, of resilience and despair, and of the relationships that withstand or are formed through adversity." - Film Comment
“Soon it becomes clear that the filmmakers’ helplessness before the ruthlessness of both nature and politicians mirrors that of the viewers, and it is depicted with a touching, funny honesty and genuine humility. This is the festival’s best film.” - Boston Phoenix
“A raw examination of misery and hope in post-Katrina New Orleans.” - Village Voice
For more information visit the official The Axe in the Attic website: www.theaxeintheattic.com
*Study guide available developed specifically for educators.
A note from the directors’ about the film’s title: The title of The Axe in the Attic comes from an oft-repeated story about the evacuee’s experiences from the floods of Hurricane Betsy (1965). In order to keep from drowning in your home, you have to keep an axe in your attic to break through the roof. This notion serves as a metaphor for the many poor people who are left to fend for themselves. As one evacuee shakes her head: “Same old levee.”