The mass displacement that followed Hurricane Katrina is ostensibly the subject of “The Axe in the Attic,” as documakers Ed Pincus and Lucia Small embark on a 60-day road trip from Vermont to Louisiana, interviewing relocated victims along the way. Unable to approach the sweep, depth or authority of Spike Lee’s magisterial “When the Levees Broke,” the filmmakers choose instead to document their documentary. Eerie stretches of devastation and freeform testimony from a range of survivors notwithstanding, docu’s navel-gazing finally overwhelms its vision. Upscale auds may appreciate pic’s assumption of white liberal guilt, but probably not for 110 minutes.
Docu is structured geographically, with lines on a map tracing the filmmakers’ meandering journey south. Some eyewitness accounts gain weight and shock value through their haphazard placement within the pic.
Pincus and Small are privy to stories of the National Guard preventing food and water from reaching the refugees (one man is threatened at gunpoint when he starts to throw packages of food off a bridge to the starving people below), while another interviewee describes how people were forcibly prevented from leaving the New Orleans Convention Center.
These horror-tinged tales exist side by side with more benign human-interest fare: scenes of a family euphorically experiencing Pittsburgh snow for the first time, a boy compulsively stuffing grapes in his mouth in a FEMA trailer camp or a woman waxing nostalgic for the close-knit black neighborhoods of the Big Easy when stuck in white small-town America.
“Axe” surely attests to the uniqueness that was New Orleans, as well as the racism and downright criminality of the government’s response to its people’s needs. Yet the absence of thematic or internal chronological sense tends to unduly emphasize the journey itself and to the filmmaking couple who have undertaken it. The inclusion of the filmmakers’ bouts with their consciences and prejudices is intended as a gesture of honesty; unfortunately, their aesthetic and philosophical throes threaten to override Katrina itself.
Pincus, a veteran of direct cinema, made his mark in docus on the ’60s civil rights movement, while Small’s 2002 “My Father, the Genius” was considered a triumph of personal filmmaking. Yet, though the helmers aspire to confront issues of objectivity vs. engagement, their sincere but petty arguments seem a reduction ad absurdum of the real questions being posed.
Endless bickering over whether or not to offer a few bucks to interviewees they do not intend to see again has little to do with questions of non-intervention, and furthermore lacks economy or self-deprecatory humor. One recalls the impact and comic concision of the silent classic “The Cameraman,” as newsreel photog Buster Keaton matter-of-factly slips a dropped knife back into the hand of a Tong War combatant he’s filming.
Tech credits are solid.