'The Axe in the Attic': Filmmakers' self-pity mars Katrina story

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In Hurricane Katrina, Lucia Small ("My Father the Genius) and Ed Pincus ("Black Natchez") found the perfect storm on which to train their individual specialties. Small's previous documentary exposed the damage to her family's relationships wreaked by her narcissistic parent, while Pincus' filmmaking in the '60s and '70s captured the boots-on-the-ground challenges of the civil rights movement.

So when the rains hit and the levees collapsed, the two, full of outrage toward governmental injustice and seething over the racial inequity exposed thereby, packed their cameras and began a 60-day trek down into the disaster zone, a trip that resulted in "The Axe in the Attic."

On the route, their paths crossed with the hurricane's displaced, enjoying snow for the first time in Pittsburgh, picking through moldy family photos in Cincinnati, making a new life in Murray, Ky.; the film's most genuine moments reflect the fear, exasperation and plain exhaustion of those who fled the wreckage of their lives, or have come back to pick up the pieces.

Unfortunately, Small and Pincus identify two other victims: themselves. They bicker, they obsess over the ethical ramifications of their actions. Should they give money to those they interview? If they make a mutual decision not to, and Pincus breaks that pact the next day, will Small whine? Will she! In a fictitious account of their journeys, they could be played by the '80s versions of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow.

In their directors' statements, Pincus and Small argued that "integrating the filmmakers into this story would offer a structure that would allow greater breadth and depth." In practice, this means that the anguish they experience as witnesses sometimes overwhelms the pain of those who've actually lost something, even everything.

This is most off-putting in a segment focused on Lower 9th Ward residents Ruth and Milton Creecy, who apparently agreed to participate in picking through the detritus of their home in exchange for a verbal offer from Small to share proceeds with them, though the release she had them sign promised no such thing.

Challenged by some members of the volunteer group Common Ground, Small ended up in tears, feeling horribly misunderstood. For his part, Mr. Creecy said they just needed some money from someone.

It's for those pragmatic survivors that I recommend "Axe in the Attic" (a title that comes from an essential tool identified by those who had experienced a previous hurricane, knowing that rooftop access could be key to survival). When they pointed the camera away from themselves, Small and Pincus broke through the theoretical and somewhat self-aggrandizing and into the tragic, practical and heroic.

Running time: 1:50. Plays various times, Aug. 29-Sept. 4, at Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave.; 773-281-4114. A panel including co-director Small will discuss the continuing problems of Katrina at Saturday's four screenings.

No MPAA rating; parents cautioned for language, adult themes.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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