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Face of tragedy 

Katrina docs on Sundance reveal the human side

No one image, no one article, no one TV show, no one film -- no one anything -- can even begin to tell the story of the devastation of the Mississippi Gulf Coast from last year's hurricanes. And in the rush to commemorate the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, many have tried. What becomes clear is that when you focus on the human element, the details of tragedy resonate more deeply.

That's what makes a trio of documentaries airing on the Sundance Channel on Aug. 29 so appealing. Modest in length and scope, they fix their gaze on the face of human tragedy and suffering in a way that brings home the reality that, one year later, the people of this region remain stranded on one, huge, rotting rooftop crying for help.

You can see this in the 40-minute In the Sun: Michael Stipe and Friends, featuring the R.E.M. frontman's attempt to raise funds and awareness through a downloadable EP; in the 30-minute In His Own Words: Brian Williams on Hurricane Katrina, with the NBC anchor recalling his horrific week in New Orleans during the storm; and in the 30-minute Saving Jazz, in which legendary photographer Herman Leonard's return to his flooded Lakeview home and studio serves as the backdrop for the struggle of New Orleans musicians.

This latter work, directed and narrated by veteran British documentary filmmaker Leslie Woodhead (Cry From the Grave), best conveys how one person's struggle symbolizes that of many more. And Woodhead couldn't find a better subject than Leonard. To be around Leonard is to be in the presence not just of true artistic legend, but also of pure youthful exuberance. His art is iconic; it was Leonard, in his black-and-white, shadow-drenched portraits of Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon and Billie Holiday, who made cigarette smoke another character in his works.

He's now 84 but works New Orleans' cultural events with the vigor of someone 30 years younger. He almost seems ageless. But watching Leonard survey the ruins of his flooded home, with loyal assistant Jenny Bagert, is to watch a man age by the minute. His once-dancing eyes slow and wander, and get a little moist. "I've never felt helpless in my life," he shrugs, and I'm once again reminded of the many older New Orleanians who previously seemed would live for eternity -- restaurateur Joseph Casamento, guitarist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, chef Austin Leslie -- suddenly made mortal by the evacuation.

Woodhead frames Leonard's attempts to salvage his negatives, many of which were brought to safety to a downtown museum, and begin the arduous task of developing them again to meet a pre-Katrina deadline for a much-anticipated coffee-table book of his work. All this while trying to decide whether to return, a decision the vast majority of New Orleans' musicians face in the light of diminished housing (and performance) opportunities.

For the documentary In His Own Words, NBC anchor Brian Williams supplements gruesome video footage with his own perspective on his weeklong ordeal in the city. Say what you will about Williams; he struggles to offset his "pretty boy" features to be taken seriously as a broadcast journalist. His work during Katrina has done much to accomplish this goal, because he's one of the few who gutted it out in the Superdome to bear witness to the filth and frustration -- only to leave those confines and witness the suffering nearby at the Convention Center.

Williams was one of those on-the-ground newsmen to openly challenge the misinformation being put forth by the Michaels Chertoff and Brown, and the nation is better for it.

Michael Stipe is equally impassioned in the well-meaning if fractured In the Sun, which chronicles the making of the benefit EP fueled by reworkings of Joseph Arthur's brilliant song, "In the Sun." His film awkwardly alternates between studio chatter and interviews with coastal victims, and by the end it's clear who's more eloquent.

One year later, despite the best of intentions, the suffering continues.

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