Hurricane Katrina: Caught on Camera, Channel 4
Big Brother, Channel 4
Documentary-makers must piece fragments into an unforgettable story, but this time, old hands fail
Sunday 29 August 2010
More than a million people evacuated; winds reaching 145mph; more than 1,800 dead; 90,000 square miles under siege; 275,000 homes destroyed, and $81m (£52m) worth of damage done to property.
These are the bare, on-the-record facts of the chaos and destruction wrought on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina on this day five years ago. Less well-known, perhaps (though not to those in the vicinity of Louisiana) were the stories that poured out of widespread looting, of a city in riot, of rapes, brutality, and a devastating racial divide.
This, surely, would be the subject matter of Hurricane Katrina: Caught on Camera, a documentary promising a first-person perspective of the storm, the floods and the aftermath of the costliest natural disaster America has seen. This, however, is not what we got.
First of all, let me make it clear: in no way would I make light of the experiences of the individuals whose camcorder records we see. To be stuck in the attic of a house with no way out while the water roars its way up the stairs is no laughing matter; neither is a water shortage in a domed stadium packed with people. What's more, the footage of the storm, the swirling roads-turned-rivers and the sad sight of homes being turned inside-out was extraordinary. But it's nothing we haven't seen before. If this sounds heartless, for many lost not only their livelihoods, but their lives, let me put this in context.
What we saw of the tsunami in Thailand of 2004 confirmed nature's power; the images of the swelling sea and ever-advancing tidal wave were terrifying. Before this, there was 9/11. I'm not referring to the event itself – though the live pictures of the towers collapsing was appalling enough – but rather the documentary footage of the falling man, the screams that echoed out of the dustclouds as they consumed the streets. This was hard to watch; at times impossible, and certainly impossible without crying.
But Hurricane Katrina: Caught on Camera was hamstrung in part by its very essence. For those who owned the camcorders that delivered the footage seemed not to see the worst of it: one is holed up in the Superdome, yet there is no sign of the anarchy that others witnessed; another waits for help once the storm is over by sitting on a deckchair in his ruined front-yard, drying himself out. Doesn't that seem almost a creature comfort compared with the straits 2.5 million newly homeless Pakistanis are finding themselves in as they wade to who knows where?
We see Air Force One pass over the Superdome, helping not one jot; we hear of bodies floating past, bloated; we can understand the rising panic of a mother of two whose telephone call to the emergency services is told: "I don't know how you can get out, ma'am. We haven't got anyone we can send you." But there could have been so much more. The recently published Voices from the Storm, showcased in The New Review this week, reveals oral histories far richer than this visual affair. It reveals, too, that there are stories we haven't heard, stories that would have made this documentary unique and, in turn, more moving – but its makers have not found them. Given this was the same team that produced the gut-wrenching, and similarly camcorder-filmed 9/11: 102 Minutes that Changed America, this can only go down as an opportunity missed.
From one disaster to another. Big Brother: The Final and its transformation into Ultimate Big Brother. Ballsy Bristolian Josie won the final series of the reality show. She seemed pleasant enough, but frankly, it was hard to care. What began as a fascinating social experiment, highlighted by Nasty Nick Bateman's brilliant strategy of, well, cheating, has become a mere shadow, the abuse of a few puppets desperate for a moment in the spotlight.
The level to which Big Brother has sunk was summed up by Josie when Davina asked her how she felt on leaving the house as its champion: "Weird, innit?" Yes, it is, Josie; yes, it is. Weird that all those people are still standing around outside in Borehamwood, weird that they're screaming and booing when they could be at home with a good book. Or even a bad book. Anything, frankly, would be more entertaining than having Davina constantly screech that this is the Greatest Thing in the World. Ever.
As her prize for winning, Josie was given the "ultimate" accolade of being thrown straight back into the house (only to walk out two days later). There, she was joined by "the most memorable housemates" through the years to find the "Ultimate" Big Brother contestant. Did I mention ultimate? I'm not quite sure my understanding of the word is the same as BB's – did we really need to see Makosi again? Or Nadia? At least John McCririck is in there to stir things up. And I have to admit that I did recognise the whole rotten lot of them. Shame on me.
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