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K-State Today

July 29, 2011

Hurricane of truth: Katrina documentaries, films seek to tell stories, uncover injustices

Submitted by Communications and Marketing

Some films are meant to be a distraction from the concerns or realities of life, while the purpose of other films is to bring those concerns and realities into the spotlight.

According to one Kansas State University English professor, films about Hurricane Katrina do both.

As students, faculty and staff across K-State become immersed in the pages of Dave Eggers "Zeitoun" -- this year's Kansas State Book Network selection -- filmmakers are preparing an animated version of the book, which is a nonfiction account of a Syrian-American contractor who elected to stay in New Orleans when warnings of Hurricane Katrina began to pour in.

Once the hurricane hit, the contractor doled out supplies to victims and saved pets. But he ran into trouble when he was arrested for looting -- even though he was on his own property. The book "Zeitoun" explores the claim that this arrest was racially based, along with other possible instances of discrimination and injustice in the wake of Katrina. It's expected the movie version will do the same.

The Kansas State Book Network program encourages all incoming freshmen to read the book in order to provide common ground for discussion in their new environment. Current students, faculty and staff also are encouraged to participate. Activities will be held throughout the year to emphasize the themes throughout the book, including the Aug. 28 Movies on the Grass film, "Trouble the Water," an award-winning documentary about people who survived not only Katrina, but also the chaos that took place afterward.

Documentaries are powerful vehicles through which to convey information about real events, such as the plight of Katrina survivors in "Trouble in the Water," according to Tanya Gonzalez, an associate professor of English at K-State who has taught several courses about film.

"A documentary film can hope to educate and convey previously unknown information. But whether it will change people's minds about what they believe is true is another story," Gonzalez said. "Moreover, some documentaries do not have a wide distribution, so they exist without a broad audience."

Two documentaries about Katrina and its aftermath that have suffered this plight are Spike Lee's "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," and S. Leo Chiang's "A Village Called Versailles," which is about a Vietnamese community rebuilding after Katrina only to find that their neighborhood was being designated as a toxic waste dumping ground.

"These stories are provocative, but they are not popular," Gonzalez said.

A film adaptation of "Zeitoun" could very likely find success, though, since the book is so popular and provides a different perspective on the devastating affects of Katrina, she said. It may produce effects similar to "Erin Brockovich" or "Boys Don't Cry" in terms of drawing attention to a social problem.

"The affect the film could have on the public would really depend on how the story was handled," Gonzalez said. "How much it will politicize the public is always hard to tell, but film adaptations of compelling and already popular stories can find much success."

When adapting an original work to film, sometimes the filmmaker's vision will differ from that of the original writer. The task of documentaries, however, is different, Gonzalez said.

"They have to make a new, interesting and compelling story from material that is typically not fictional and not always considered entertaining," Gonzalez said. "Spike Lee's film about Katrina perhaps suffered because it came very closely after the actual events."

Audiences may have been weary of the debates surrounding the chaos and devastation that transpired after the hurricane, she said. However, "Zeitoun" has the advantage of some distance, and focuses on one man's journey through Katrina's aftermath, she said.

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