"You mention the South to any American, and it conjures up an iconic image from Southern belles to the Ku Klux Klan," co-director Lucia Small says in The Axe in the Attic's opening minutes. "For me, the South is a distant land. Sometimes in my more hopeful moments, I think of the South as a place of social change, where Martin Luther King spoke of a dream of a better America."
Before the documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina can gain any kind of narrative steam, the filmmakers have lost the viewers, so absorbed with their own Northern liberal preconceptions that they seem almost incapable of presenting a clear story of the storm's human toll. Veterans Small and Ed Pincus decide to turn the camera on themselves, and in doing so make a devastating error. Like most other documentaries about Katrina, The Axe in the Attic is at its best when it simply lets the cameras roll — on their subjects, not each other — to allow the people affected to tell their harrowing tales of death, displacement and dysfunction at the hands of an uncaring government.
Two-and-a-half years after the storm, "any American" should know about how nature and bureaucracy failed the victims, so The Axe in the Attic is a curious work that feels dated by now. (We are, after all, a year and a half past Spike Lee's brilliant When the Levees Broke, pulled off in time for the first anniversary of Katrina.)
Pincus and Small can perhaps be forgiven for being as traumatized as the next person in trying to accomplish the impossible — to place the storm in perspective within only a few months of its occurrence. But it's profoundly disturbing, and often annoying, the way they so willingly allow their own shock and awe to drive the movie. For them, it's not just an opportunity to cover a tragedy; it's a chance to discuss early and often the conflicts that arise for documentary filmmakers when they fear getting too close to their subject matter. At various times they bicker over their approach, most notably when Pincus gives in to an interviewee's plea for cash, their argument with each other overshadowing the victim's plight.
They place their own trauma in with that of the victims, who are profiled so fleetingly that we barely get to know them, and that's a minor tragedy unto itself. Next time, maybe the directors should follow their own rules of engagement. They'd be better filmmakers for it, and so would their film.