DAY SEVEN November 9, 2005
Documentary DESIRE Contributes to New Orleans' Rebirth
by Laura DeBrizzi
It wasn't long ago that the eye of Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans and forever changed the landscape of the historical city founded in 1718 by the French. Amidst the flooding, if one listened close enough, fond memories of the cheers at Mardi Gras and the jumpin' pianos of the French Quarter could faintly be heard in the distance. AFI FEST 2005 hopes to make those sounds crisp and clear again with a special benefit screening of the documentary DESIRE. The work, directed by Julie Gustafson and The Teenage Documentary Project, details the lives of several young women from various socioeconomic backgrounds--all residents of the Big Easy. Prior to its cancellation at the hands of Katrina, DESIRE was also scheduled to be awarded the Grand Jury, Louisiana Filmmaker and Documentary prizes at the New Orleans Film Festival.
"Originally, we got some great offers from small towns (including Baton Rouge and Nashville) to host our Festival, but we ultimately made the decision to be a little conservative and to do some screenings in other cities to fundraise, as is the case in Los Angeles and the AFI FEST, where DESIRE will make its World Premiere," says Lindsay Ross, Executive Director of the New Orleans Film Festival. "We might end up doing something small here (in New Orleans) at the first of the year, like a mini-Festival, and then just concentrate on bringing back the Festival next year for people to look forward to."
Natalie McMenemy, AFI FEST Director of Operations and Documentary Programmer, and Christian Gaines, AFI FEST Director, both loved what they saw in DESIRE, and will allot monies generated from both screenings of the film--the first being on Thursday, November 10 at 6:30 p.m. in ArcLight Theatre 12--to Ross and her team. "I'm a southern girl, so Katrina hit an acute nerve," says McMenemy. "After the tragedy, when the opportunity presented itself to host the World Premiere of DESIRE, we moved quickly to include it in the program and make it a fundraiser. It was important to our whole team--including Senior Programmer Shaz Bennett, who had been an advocate of the film from the start as well--to aide a sister film Festival in this way."
It is a gesture much appreciated. "Seventy five percent of our budget comes from the Festival. All of our sponsorship money comes in September. All of our ticket sales come in October. We have an annual gala fundraiser where we sell patron tickets. None of this happened," regrets Ross, of what would have been the Festival's 17th year. To put things in a true perspective, she adds: "Right now, we don't have money for our payroll."
"Of the 480,000 people that lived in New Orleans prior to Katrina, only 60,000 have been able to return, and that includes those who have come for repair and rescue," she continues, in relaying the city's despair. "Nobody realizes how hard it is to get everything done every day. We still have to drive really far away to find a bank... or just to do normal business is insane. For example, in order for me to get on the Internet, I have to drive to a coffee shop that is pretty far off from where I'm staying, and it is generally overcrowded. It's crazy."
Because of such hardships still plaguing New Orleans, a genuine affection will no doubt surround DESIRE upon its premiere, but the work's quality alone will also be enough to tug on audience members' heartstrings. "Many documentaries get away with being too long and having weak storytelling because their topics are compelling. DESIRE combined several elements in a seamless way--following multiple girls and their storylines over a number of years; films made by the girls; the filmmakers' reflections and more," explains Susan Levitas, Vice President of the New Orleans Film Festival, Co-Chair of the Competitive Division and Chair of the Documentary Jury, of DESIRE's wins. "The length was appropriate, the editing was great and the issues balanced. It is honestly a great example of how to handle a topic well," Levitas continues. "Everyone agreed that this was a great film and not just a great documentary."
DESIRE is special for another reason too. It marks the first time a Louisiana filmmaker (Gustafson/The Teenage Girls' Documentary Project) has been awarded the coveted Grand Jury Prize.
The buzz generated from DESIRE, in addition to the high anticipation generally surrounding the Festival, made it extremely difficult for Ross to finally make the call that would put on hold an event so many look forward to. "It was definitely a decision that was based on the ability of the city to support the Festival. And the city just wasn't in a place to support it," sighs Ross of the event, which was scheduled to run the week of October 6-13. "The flooding and the infrastructure damage to New Orleans was the ultimate factor. In the early days, a lot of us simply thought, 'Wow, it's going to be a really bad storm. We might be behind and we're going to have to hustle afterward so that we can catch up and make the Festival as good as it can be.'"
But reality quickly set in with Katrina's arrival on August 29. "The answer was obvious as time went on. There were no places for anyone to stay. I don't think the airports had opened by then, with the exception of one or two flights in and out all day. And there was no power at any of our venues. The impossibilities were endless," she justifies.
Although there are still many hurdles to overcome, Ross is determined to be a contributor to New Orleans' rebirth. "We're putting a link on our Web site (www.neworleansfilmfest.com) where people can make donations," she reveals. "Every little bit helps."
And in truth, things are looking up for Ross and the New Orleans Film Festival as of late. By the time this interview is published, Ross will have already flown out to sunny Los Angeles and gotten her first viewing of the much-beloved DESIRE. A respite from the madness--if only for a few days.
--For those interested in offering aid to the New Orleans Film Festival, please phone 504.258.2475.
BACK TO DAY SEVEN