Left to Die on the Vine (Movie Review)


Left to Die
Produced by Elizabeth Atly
Video Viva
66 minutes

FEMA photo of post-Katrina situation at Causeway & I-10, new orleans

Wednesday, September 27, and I arrived by bike over 40 minutes late for the premiere of Left to Die at the Hollywood Theater in Portland, Oregon. I assumed the long line outside was for This Film Is Not Yet Rated, the other indie documentary advertised in red block letters on the nonprofit theater’s marquee.

Instead it was for the lesser hyped film, one that chronicles the personal experiences of those that suffered the so-called “Causeway Concentration Camp” in the early wake of Hurricane Katrina. This I learned from the guy at the end of the line, a position I dutifully assumed all the way to the ticket counter.

Such a turnout is always good news for a relatively unheralded release.

“Seems very much like a KBOO audience,” several movie goers repeated. Portland’s independent radio station had apparently just run a segment on the opening, thus drawing the late-arriving crowd.

Frankly, I attended Left to Die with that obligatory sense that I should for some progressive Portland reason support another film about life post-Katrina. Other than that, I really had no idea what to expect. Among the near sell-out crowd, you could feel the vibe of political engagement and empathetic suffering. We would all share their pain together for at least the next 66 minutes.

Checking out films with little preconceived notions is a chancy pleasure. You might well waste your money or equally risk the opportunity of being surprised at having found a creative and emotional bargain. I found neither, and in that sense give Left to Die a wholehearted and unequivocally mixed review. If your film allowance is flush, check it out soon. If not, the wait for a cheaper seat won’t kill you.

The documentary leans heavily on staggered and intertwining interviews with seven or eight Jefferson Parish residents who found themselves corralled and penned by heavily armed FBI agents under the Causeway Overpass. The early segments try to justify the “Causeway Concentration Camp” label that they have attached to their situation and frame the main characters as survivors of an equally horrendous imprisonment. Some of this succeeds as the Causeway victims were misled and cattle-rodded under the overpass and left to exist with little food or water for up to eight days.

The tough-minded comparison to the Holocaust falls short though as we hear and see the survivors many months later in decent health, well-spoken and colorfully dressed. Angry, for sure, but still breathing. They’re due some sort of recourse but are hardly gas-chamber victims. (Some did die under the overpass, but an official death count was not provided.)

The film succeeds best later on drawing parallels between the predicament and America’s, and in particular the South’s, relationship to the urban condition. Issues of class and racism fall under the microscope of the Causeway Overpass and grow hotter, muddier and more stinky with each passing day, with each Porto-potty overflowing and overturned, with each plea for help met by the pointed barrel of a machine gun. Emotions climax when a mother is denied a single ice cube for her suffering infant.

Bending high on sentiment, Left to Die woefully underachieves on production value. If its crudeness is to serve a purpose, as you almost have to believe to make it to the end, even then it doesn’t really succeed. The fact that there are only limited still images from the Causeway Overpass site justifies the films over-reliance on talking-head interviews (primarily pedestrian one and two up shots), but it does not excuse the incessant repetition of the same stills (such as one particular helicopter) every few minutes, the choppy editing and shaky-cam twirls of focus.

In one love-it-or-hate-it nod to do-it-yourself filmmaking, a plastic bus is pushed across a road map to represent the evacuees eventual departure to places like Houston and San Antonio. There is just too much visual imagery out there that could have been utilized to dramatize the situation and highlight the dichotomy of rich and poor New Orleans. The reliance on just several photographs seems like an error of resources and creativity rather than an intentional filmmaking decision.

My best guess is that Left to Die was rushed to screening for some political reasons. It certainly would have benefited from another round of filming and three or four more takes at editing. Those that lived through the experience seem to deserve at least that.

Left to Die won’t win any Oscars, but then again, nor will those decision-makers who staged the Causeway Concentration Camp in the first place.

On a social note, Left to Die’s after party was a hit. You have to thank filmmakers who invite the entire audience over to their backyard for a fall night of wine, music and storytelling.

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