Disjointed yet compelling, Alex LeMay’s “Desert Bayou” offers an intriguing take on the post-Katrina diaspora of New Orleanians by focusing on the evacuation of 600 black survivors to Salt Lake City. Doc plays like a series of self-contained episodes — one sequence is a mini-history of Mormon policies toward people of color — and is overlaid with breathless narration that underscores and italicizes obvious points. Still, pic remains scrupulously fair while examining the culture clash between the black “guests” and a largely white population. Limited theatrical exposure may spark interest for playoff in cable, pubcast and nonprofit venues.
Rendered homeless by flooding, the 600 New Orleans residents had no idea of their final destination when they were airlifted to Utah. Shortly after landing, they were subjected to various indignities — searches and background checks by law-enforcement officials, curfew-restricted residency at a military base near Salt Lake City — and demonized by rumor-mongers. (Utah’s attorney general initially claimed, inaccurately, that many of the evacuees were convicted murderers.)
As “Desert Bayou” reports, however, the locals grew increasingly accepting of the evacuees as many newcomers sought employment and moved into their own homes. While concentrating primarily on two families resettling in Utah, LeMay raises provocative points about race, class and poverty, suggesting Hurricane Katrina actually may have been a blessing in disguise for some of the survivors. Indeed, one interviewee bluntly describes her joy at being delivered to “a land of milk and honey” after struggling to survive amid the violent crime and urban decay that defined her life in pre-Katrina New Orleans.
Pic would have benefited from additional testimony by other evacuees, and more detailed study of how Utah residents have been affected by exposure to distinctive elements (cuisine, music, etc.) of New Orleans tradition. On the other hand, LeMay earns points for his balanced presentation of key figures on both sides. Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson comes across as a singularly enlightened politico who’s eager to welcome — and, perhaps more important, help assimilate — the newcomers in his midst. Unfortunately, as the closing credits make clear, not every fresh start leads to happily ever after.
Editing and lensing are above average for a small-budget doc.