Watching: The Order of Myths by Margaret Brown

If I had a nickel for every would-be documentarian with a great idea for a film about their fascinating lesbian auntie, libertarian war-veteran grandfather or prickly humanitarian cousin, I would, as the saying goes, have a lot of nickels. Yes, home is where the heart is, but it's such an even bigger cliché for early career filmmakers to turn to their families as subjects that it is difficult not to snicker or cringe whenever the prospect of such a project comes up. Documentaries tend to be not very interesting without conflict, and when that conflict draws on ancestral dining room table conversation, most filmmakers invariably capitulate to family sensibilities, until what once seemed like a gripping concept for a movie is soon reduced to a few heartfelt personal platitudes.

So when this sort of thing is really done right, it demands our praise and attention. After telling my Shreveportian friend Rob Peterson that I was planning on spending the lead-in to Mardi Gras season in New Orleans, he asked me at once if I had seen The Order of Myths, although it's not about Louisiana. It's about the oldest Mardi Gras carnival in the United States, in Mobile, Alabama. I could tell you that this is a film about race relations in America today, but I would probably already lose those of you who are woozy with delight at living in post-racial Obamaland. I could suggest that it is a tale of two cities, or really just one city, with two parallel lives. Perhaps mention that it's about a grand pageant, an ancient tradition, carefully preserved at all costs; a representation of a genteel and conservative way of life that captures the very essence of the southern soul. It is all of those things, but they aren't what make it powerful.

It can't have been easy for Margaret Brown to return to her hometown of Mobile and start waving her Yankee ivy-league diploma and camera in the faces of Mobile's white elite, but documentaries are also all about access, and through her grandfather, Brown had it. At least she had it to the white carnival. Mobile has two. One for the white folks, and one for the black folks. People like it that way, one of Brown's informants tells her. She gets great access to the black carnival as well, as we get the sense that there really isn't that much to hide over on the wrong side of the tracks.

What makes this a wonderful film, however, is its subtlety. Brown is so sure-footed in her choices, so careful not to go for easy condemnation, and so much more interested in observing than in pontificating, that the only possible result is a film of great nuance and measure. (Only one brief moment of interview footage, when a good old Bubba speaks from behind his mask, felt just ever-so-slightly jarring--far worse exploitations abound in any given ten seconds of any Michael Moore film). There is just enough of the Klan reflected in the carnival masks of the debutantes' escorts to conjure up an ominous dread. There are mute skeletons in closets, and even some hanging from trees, but this film never comes close to being shrill or judgmental, and its great surprise and payoff, ultimately, is that it left me cautiously but genuinely optimistic.

It was also the first film I streamed direct from Amazon, a viewing experience I highly recommend. For less than the price of a grande latte, I experienced some first-class filmmaking right from the comfort of my rented New Orleans Barcalounger.

Brown understands that the family connection is fraught with documentary difficulty, but she even manages to turn this to her advantage, waiting until just the right instant to let us know that a particular stern and patrician onscreen presence is also her grandfather. Then, in the film's most dramatic, final moment, she gives him the last word. I won't ruin this profoundly ambiguous closing; you really ought to have a look for yourself.


I love it here too

It broke my heart to leave New Orleans just four days before Mardi Gras, but as more than one person down there told me, unless you are a bartender it's hard to make a buck in that town. With a New York job offer starting fat Tuesday itself, I hightailed it out of the Crescent City, via Hale County, Alabama, where I interviewed the director of the Rural Studio, Andrew Freear, in the middle of a blizzard that pretty much closed the state down. That storm was heading east, right across Atlanta, and pretty much tracing my planned route along Interstate 85, so I gambled and headed north instead. Even though I-59 and I-81 cut up into the high country beside the Great Smoky Mountains, there was a blank patch on the radar map that made me think that might be the way out. And I wanted to get out. People in Alabama, to generalize wildly, seem to think that the way to behave in a car in a nasty snowfall is to drive as fast as possible so as to be out in it for the shortest possible time.

Another great low budget motel, run by another nice guy from the Indian subcontinent.

After a couple hours of crossed fingers as the snow continued to fall and the temperatures to drop, the counter-intuitive strategy of driving into the mountains to avoid the snow worked out, and halfway through Tennessee I found myself on a dry highway. Saturday morning I woke up in the Alpine Motel in Abingdon, Virginia, about as far as you can possibly be from New York City and still be in that state. Hitting the road at 7AM, I stopped only for gas and pimento cheese sandwiches, knocking out the 600 miles fast enough to get back to Brooklyn in time for sundown. I was all ready to collapse into bed in blissful exhaustion when I made the mistake of checking my email. "Disco Throwdown," it said. Tonight. Manhattan. Uh-oh, it's on!

 Sender behind the decks

I know, you're thinking after two weeks of pre-Mardi Gras parties, brass bands, Superbowl shindigs, costumed madness and beads flying through the air, did I really have to go to another party? After six-hundred miles of road rash? The answer, of course, is yes. You see, the mighty DJ Jonny Sender of the immense Don Flan moved to the French Alps about a year ago, and as far as I know he hasn't been back in the USA since. But there he was, on the bill for the evening. Unmissable. I grabbed a disco nap to prepare to throwdown and around midnight Eva and the Wolfe and I cabbed it to Chambers Street. Sender's jaw dropped when he saw me, which was the desired effect, and then we proceeded to turn the party out. It was a joyous reunion, what with two-thirds of the Flan in the house; we were only missing "La" Cynthia. And Sender wrecked the set, proving that just because he now spends his days hanging out in the alpine snow with his sons, he hasn't lost any of his legendary house-rocking skills. Hopefully he'll start to commute. The Manhattan youth had no idea who they were messing with. I wore out a few women who came with lame boyfriends who couldn't or wouldn't dance, and we closed the joint down, burning a hole in the dancefloor on the back of a final triple-play from the Afrosound. Sender noted that we of the Don Flan were rocking the hell out of the cumbia groove fully fifteen years ago, at least a dozen years before it became an international sensation. No doubt. We were digging in crates when you were pooping in your nappies and we've forgotten about more records than you'll ever see, so step off. Yuh kyaan test.

Then, home, sweet home.


Real Vinyl: none of that Serato digi-nonsense. Sender is probably the last deejay out there shlepping a crate of records all the way from Geneva.


Sweaty mess. Photo possibly by Eva Campbell

Blow your own horn department

Got home to a pile of mail, a healthy amount of which turned out to be newspaper clippings of stories I wrote. A full page spread on the Ghetto Biennale in the Miami Herald, with five of my photographs, multiple copies of a couple of front pages in the Suddeutsche Zeitung feuilleton, and a piece for the Times of London.  A CD of my report for the BBC World Service, which I had never heard before, since it never made it online, even though it played across at least five continents. Muchas Gracias to all the people who got it together to send them to me!


Ain't Nobody can say dat dey gonna beat dem Saints

The collective outpouring of joy on the streets of New Orleans last night was enough to make a sportsfan out of even a football-hating curmudgeon like me, someone who had barely registered that the Colts had left Baltimore and moved to Indianapolis. And that happened all the way back in 1983. But it doesn't matter what city the Colts claimed to represent, because the New Orleans Saints crushed them underfoot like a tired string of Mardi Gras beads on Canal Street.

As people have been saying for weeks in this town, "this is about so much more than football." For this crime-ridden, flood-damaged, third-world outpost on America's southern shores, the Saints' first-ever Superbowl appearance was a gigantic unifying event, bringing together races, classes, uptown and downtown, hipsters and hip-hoppers, all happy to invest their aspirations and self-esteem in the one common goal of victory. Saints banners and bumper stickers and tee-shirts were everywhere. Revelers wandered the streets, charging up to total strangers and screaming "WHO DAT?" (say dey gonna beat dem Saints?) at the top of their lungs. I've been Who-datting right back; I hope that's the etiquette. (Tulane Geographer and Brooklynite transplant Richard Campanella told me "I've been Who-datted in the street by some really beautiful women. I still don't know quite how you are supposed to deal with it. Do you say 'oh, nice to meet you, I'm Richard?'")

The feeling that the flood might have destroyed the essential character of New Orleans, which now has 100,000 fewer residents than it did before Katrina; a sense that the city had transitioned from tourist stronghold to terminal aid-recipient; the blighted, blown-out buildings and the still-wasted neighborhoods and the ineffectual local government and the high crime rate: all of these things, these problems, were as nothing before the blinding light of the onward marching soldiers, the torches held high by the crusading Saints, going all the way to Miami. That essential and eternal New Orleans jazz-gospel classic, "When the Saints go Marching in," which I listened to over and over as a child on scratchy old Preservation Hall albums, took on a deep, city-wide resonance. It became the hymn of a wounded people rising back from the mud and slime of the Mississippi Delta muck to reclaim New Orleans' place as a proud and great American city. Every band of every musical persuasion played it in clubs in every corner of the city.

The NFC Championship victory at the Superdome finally redeemed even that imposing chunk of architecture for the city. Synonymous after Katrina with violence, hunger, thirst, and the abject failure of the Federal response to the flood, the massive stadium had become a representation of loss and losers, poverty and squalor, hardly associations a city wants its football palace to conjure. But hours after the Saints beat the Arizona Cardinals there two weeks ago, the cleanup crews had to beg the partying fans to pack it up and go home, as if the people of New Orleans had decided symbolically to reinhabit and rebrand the building they had once fled to as homeless, soggy refugees.

In Bywater, where I watched the game, people poured out onto the sidewalks after the final whistle, popping champagne corks and Roman candles under the yellow streetlights. On Louisa street, a brass band immediately started playing, and the road filled with joyous dancers. Even the police, reviled here thanks to a reputation for immense corruption, got a rare thumbs up. One patrol-car passing by broadcast a "Who Dat!?" over their megaphone growler. "That might be the best thing I've ever heard," said a young woman on the streetcorner, basking in the afterglow.


Unifiers Soul Brothers Hair Styling Tonsorial

On North Claiborne, in the 7th Ward, New Orleans

 My hair is getting awfully wild and woolly, so I've been scouting for places to get a trim.
"THINK: If you are following a God that looks like someone other than you, then you are a slave to the one that he looks like."


It's officially a kidnapping...

In more than fifteen trips to Haiti over the last twenty years I have experienced a lot of heartbreaking moments, but most difficult to bear of all was a brief stop in the remote countryside on the way back from Pestel, a little-visited town far out to the west of Port-au-Prince, in about 1994. I don't remember why we stopped, exactly, perhaps just to try and buy a cola. We were a film crew, a car full of blan, as foreigners are always called. As often in rural Haiti, just the simple fact of being in a car in that place meant that we were people of incalculable wealth and privilege. At the end of our short visit, as we were getting back into the vehicle, one of the women we had chatted with came running out to us, with her newest-born baby in her arms. She thrust the child, perhaps a year old, through the driver's-side window. "Please take him," she begged. "Take him home with you to America, and give him a life. We have nothing here for him." We protested that it was impossible. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who was tearing up. We said we hoped that there was a better future in store for them. We did our best to wish them well, and we drove on.

If you interpret this tragic anecdote as meaning that Haitians don't care about their children, then I'm afraid you are someone who needs to expand your mind and try and come to terms with how brutal and difficult life is when lived in a state of eternal poverty. Nothing is more sacred in Haiti than the "ti moun," the little children. In Haitian culture, even more than in our own, the innocence and life of the small child is to be safeguarded at all costs. Grownups will starve to let the little ones eat. Imagine, if you can, the supreme sacrifice required of a mother to try and seize, in one terrible moment of opportunity, a better life for her own baby, knowing full well that she may never see it again. It is almost too terrible to contemplate.

It is in this context that the ten Idaho baptist kidnappers caught at the Dominican border with thirty-three underage Haitian children should be prosecuted. In Haiti, not, as some have proposed, in the United States, where the religious right will make a mockery of any trial. It isn't difficult to picture what happened. These misguided evangelical zealots, so arrogant in the certainty of their own spiritual superiority, are probably not unlike many missionaries I've met over the years in all manner of third-world hell-holes, marketing their one true God to starving people. I'm sure they believed they were doing a great thing. In fact, it seems they were so certain that they were doing a good thing that they were willing to lie and dissemble to accomplish their goals. They claimed the children were orphans. This has proved not to be true. They claimed the children were not to be put up for adoption, a contention contradicted in the very first paragraph of their rudimentary mission statement, linked in Marc Lacey's New York Times article about their indictment, below.

Certainly they went around town painting a pretty picture of their hypothetical new orphanage in the Dominican Republic. In the NYT article Marc Lacey reports that "several of the 33 children had at least one living parent, and some of those parents said that the Baptists had promised simply to educate the youngsters in the Dominican Republic and said the children would be able to return to Haiti to visit their families." (It seems to me that Lacey's failure to directly quote any of the parents involved should be grounds for him to be recalled and reassigned to reporting on bowling matches, but maybe that's why I'm not an editor at the New York Times. Imagine for a moment that thirty-three American children had been kidnapped, or absconded with or whisked off or whatever you choose to call it. How long would it take the major media to locate their parents and barrage us with quotes? Does Mr. Lacey think the Haitian parents are incapable of explaining how this all came to pass?)

One nasty thing about this whole story is that well-meaning people who might otherwise consider adopting actual Haitian orphans, without any religious strings attached, will now think twice about getting involved. But the Idaho baptists are driven by a noxious agenda, and they should be punished; their primary interest is in attaching those very strings. According to this article in the Associated Baptist Press, the saving of souls through adoption is now a "movement," and one which might be damaged, "given a black eye," or made the object of "derision" in the wake of this mass abduction. No kidding. When you let your evangelical zeal for promoting your own faith go against the sanctity of the family, universally fundamental to all the cultures of the world, it is time for a major rethinking of your belief system.

I know it is a cliché of political correctness to turn the tables in these scenarios, but let's imagine for a moment what the reaction would be in middle America if after hurricane Katrina a group of well-meaning vodouists from Haiti had come over to New Orleans and gathered up a couple of dozen stray and desperate children before setting sail for their home island. Should we be surprised that Haitians are outraged? Marc Lacey leads his story by saying that "the case has become a flashpoint for Haiti’s fears of foreign encroachment." That sounds like a more than reasonable reaction to me.


Demand Accountability from the Recipients of your Haiti Aid Donation

Often, our desire to feel better about ourselves drives our decision to make gifts to aid organizations and other kinds of charities. Having written the check, or clicked the shopping cart button, we relax into a feeling of self-satisfaction. Instead of basking in our good deed, helping in crises like that unfolding in Haiti today demands that we also aggressively follow-up with aid organizations to make certain that they are actually performing their function and spending our money wisely. Charles Arthur of the Haiti Support Group just sent out this letter he received from Haiti. Don't weep after you read it, get angry.

Just received this email from Ryan McCrory, co-director of the Haitian Sustainable Development Found.
What an outrage!

Hello tout moun,

It has been an interesting experience sitting here in Port-Au-Prince being part of a coalition of 25 non-profit organizations coming together to coordinate the dispensation of food, water, and medical supplies. It hasn't been easy because of the extreme difficulty of passing through the myriad loops that the large NGO's require before anything will be given out. There is a 100 question form that they are passing out to communities to fill out and bring back in order to receive aid. This alone can take a week or so. The questions they ask are very difficult to answer and explaining locations in Port-Au-Prince is nearly impossible. Often Haitians use directions such as, "next to the large tree around the corner from so and so market." The UN wants GPS coordinates because many streets are not marked here and navigating the city has proven to be difficult.

After the one riot that took place in the worst part of the city, they are only sending out non-food items at first to see if the communities can function without a disaster taking place. I understand their concern for safety, but it seems to be quite a long process to go through before any nutritional needs are met. It has been nearly three weeks now and communities all over the place are living on minimal amounts of food, if any.

The Haitian government has been completely bypassed in all of this. The president has thrown his hands up in the air because he is not being included or informed about anything that is happening involving this process of bringing aid relief to the people.

Boats full of goods are being redirected to pass through the Dominican Republic (DR) which is a very lengthy process as well. We actually have a boat waiting in the DR which hasn't received any clearance by the port of Jacmel to debark.

When did it occur that our society got so disorganized? Where paperwork and numbers are given priority over bringing actual aid to the people? Smaller organizations all over the place have given up trying to deal with the larger NGO's and the UN because there still has been scarcely any sign of the goods being distributed. They have warehouses full of boxes and can't organize their dispensation to the country. The small organizations have given up and are buying local food to distribute and/or taking trips to the DR and driving truck loads of good back to the communities they are working in.

I understand that indeed this is quite a difficult project, but how could it be so disorganized? I hope that there will be a reflective inquiry into what made this all such a mess, so in the future aid relief will arrive and actually be given out to the people in a timely manner and (we can) avoid watching the population diminish every day while groups run around like a chicken with its head cut off, staring at piles of papers and computer screens, forgetting that behind the numbers are real people in dire need.

This has been a huge disaster, not only with the earthquake, but with the response. I only can hope that we get it together before more and more Haitians perish because the loads of aid aren't quite ready because they haven't been given the go by those in charge. If this doesn't reflect the depth of our Orwellian times, and not wake us up from this great mess we have gotten ourselves into, I am not sure what will.

Luckily the Haitian people are used to not eating and have a high tolerance for pain. If this was to happen in the US there would have been hell to pay.

With great hope and determination we will overcome this all and Haiti will revive itself.

Thank you,

Ryan McCrory
Co-Director Haitian Sustainable Development Found


American Born

The term "American-born" for me recalls populist, protectionist slogans like "Buy American," used back in the distant '80s to urge people to support Detroit. As if Americans created within the nation's borders were in some way superior to other kinds of people in general, and other kinds of citizens in particular. There is, of course, an actual legal distinction between naturalized citizens and native-born ones; it has frustrated Governor Schwarzenegger's presidential aspirations. But "American-born" somehow makes me think of the more suspect songs in the Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp repertoire.

The notion of citizenship and its meaning came up over the last couple of days because the #haiti twitter feed has been full of links to this article, wondering why the US media is not up in arms about the staggering statistic that 4,000 Americans are missing in Haiti. This figure is comparable to the total loss of life as a result of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and significantly greater than the total loss of life in the destruction of 9/11. For now I'll leave aside the evident and absurd presumption that lost American lives are worth more than others. The original twitterer expressed his fear that the lack of media coverage "is due to racism." By the time Huffpo ran their story about how little coverage these 4,000 deaths have gotten, Andrew Rasiej had either come up with a few extra possibilities ("Is this being under-reported because it's too painful? Is it because of racism? Is it because of lack of information?") or he was misquoted. Either way, I'm afraid his very first tweet nailed it. Certainly visiting diplomats, aid workers and consultants of various races, holding US passports, were among the victims of the earthquake. But the vast majority of the American dead, I'm afraid, will prove to be those of Haitian origin who had navigated the long and arduous legal quagmire that is the United States' naturalization process, particularly the version of it typically confronted by the dark-skinned and the kreyol-speaking. Others will be the sons and daughters of those immigrants, born in America, but not often considered "American-born." No matter what kind of American you are, being of poor, black, and Caribbean origin still diminishes the meaning of your life, and death.

Then, this morning, in the venerable New York Times, I encountered a usage of the "American-born" term quite different from the one I thought I understood. The Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki, a wanted fugitive who has stashed himself somewhere in Yemen, was described in both the first graph and the photo caption as an "American-born cleric." Al-Awlaki was allegedly pally with many nasty and misguided people: three of the 9/11 bombers, murderer and renegade army Major Nidal Malik Hasan and, most recently, underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Someone please help me: what does "American-born" mean in this context? I can't see any good reason why the NYT shouldn't simply use the word "American" here, unless this comes from a secret in-house style-sheet code and is meant to let the cognoscenti know that Al-Awlaki renounced his citizenship. Do they describe all Americans resident in foreign lands as "American-born?" Perhaps. Two weeks ago James Thompson was described as "the American-born author, who lives in Finland." But in the Al-Awlaki case it seems to me to be some sort of patriotic face-saving distancing technique, the other side of the populist coin, as in: he may be American-born, but he's no American.... Help me out here, I'd really like to know.