If you don’t recognize the name Harry Shearer, you should at least recognize his voice… or one of his voices, as a long running cast member of much loved television show The Simpsons. You may also know him from “mockumentaries” such as the quite legendary This Is Spinal Tap, and A Mighty Wind (which is well worth a look if you haven’t seen it). This time, Harry writes and directs in his first foray into documentary making.
In The Big Uneasy, Shearer takes us through the build up to the devastating Hurricane Katrina which hit New Orleans on August 30th, 2005. He doesn’t dwell on the aftermath as many other documentaries have done, but on the processes and institutions involved in defending New Orleans from such a severe storm. Or not, as the case may be.
He looks at the Army Corps of Engineers, a faction of the military charged with setting up projects in the States in the realm of civil defense. This group built the levee system in New Orleans, and in many other cities in America. And their role is quite heavily criticized, both by outside experts and also by one of their own members.
The opening of the film is quite hard hitting as I didn’t realize the extent of the flooding of the city, and just how quickly it happened. Simple animations are used to great effect in describing the breaches that occurred in the levee (huge walls built into the ground to stop rising water levels from entering the city) system around the outskirts of New Orleans and also inside the city around the canals.
Katrina is a disaster that has been very well documented, see Spike Lee’s “When The Levees Broke” for an excellent look at the devastation caused in human terms, but The Big Uneasy looks at events prior to the Hurricane and the steps taken to secure the city. It becomes apparent that the Army Corps of Engineers are quite a cavalier group. A group who are more concerned with their public image than the work they actually do. Shearer interviews an employee of the Corps who was asked to test pumps meant to be used to extract excess water from the city.
Maria Garzino is extremely honest during her screen time explaining what her findings were in relation to the output of the pumps, and what she was told to do in order to get a “successful” test from them. It doesn’t make for easy viewing. It is obvious Garzino felt strongly about the multiple failures of this system, yet when she tried to make her voice heard, she was silenced.
This outrageous treatment happened to two other experts prominently featured in the film. Robert Bea, an engineering professor from California, and Ivor von Heerden, of the Hurricane Centre once associated with Louisiana State University. After Katrina hit, both of these men led separate teams into the field to carry out scientific experiments at the breach sites and to report their findings. Both of these men found that speaking out about the truth, about the failings of the Corps to install a system that could withstand a severe storm, would result in the loss of jobs and friendships.
The most shocking thing to me about this issue the Corps, and essentially the US government, knew that the defenses wouldn’t hold up. The system was put into place many years ago, following a model for a fairly “normal” if you will, storm. No one expected such a massive hurricane to hit, yet surely it’s always best to prepare for the worst?
Not according to the Corps, who apparently only ever ask for enough money for the cheapest option. There’s a glorious exchange near the end of the film between a Corps General and a Senator, it’s really quite spectacular.
Before the screening, Harry Shearer himself spoke to the audience about his motivations for making this film. He mentioned seeing President Obama making a speech in New Orleans, and calling Hurricane Katrina a natural disaster, and to Shearer, that certainly isn’t the case. After looking at all the evidence provided by Robert Bea, Ivor von Heerden and countless other experts, it’s becomes clear that this disaster should never have been.
It seems odd to say I don’t want to spoil what this movie teaches, as it’s a documentary and rooted in facts, but there is a lot of information present here that myself and a lot of people just aren’t aware of. It’s definitely a film to watch if you want to see just how far this kind of corruption goes.
It’s testament to the outstanding residents of New Orleans that they have picked up where they left off, they’ve rebuilt their homes, communities and lives. It gives hope to those people who have lost everything, most notably the citizens of Pakistan in recent times that it’s not too late.
US Release: 30th August
UK Release: 17th September