Ed Pincus and Lucia Small are clearly not accustomed to being on the other side of the camera. The day they finished editing their first film together, The Axe in the Attic—a raw examination of misery and hope in post-Katrina New Orleans—the exhausted directors and I met at the incongruously glitzy, publicist-selected Park Lane Hotel to discuss their collaboration. In town for their New York Film Festival premiere (October 6), they answered my questions graciously, often stopping mid-response to consult each other in low tones. But as soon as they could, they turned the interview back on me, asking about everything from what sort of tape recorder I was using to where I went to high school and how old my mother is.
Pincus, a cinema verite pioneer of the ’70s, retired from filmmaking after the release of his epic Diaries: 1971–1976 (1981) in order to open a flower farm in Vermont. (Why? “It’s a very complicated story about a guy who wanted to kill me and my son and my wife,” he says cryptically.) A few years ago, while serving on the jury of the New England Film Festival, he met director-producer Small (My Father the Genius), who convinced him to direct again. “We had a similar sensibility, similar interests, a sense of humor, passions,” Small remembers, “and we decided it might be fun to make a film together. We shared concerns about race, class, and gender, and how one sees the world through those various lenses.” While the two were casting about for a suitably weighty topic—something about poverty? A school-bussing controversy in Boston?—Katrina hit. Both Pincus and Small were transfixed by the media coverage (the first few minutes of Axe feature Small anxiously training her camera on her own TV), and as soon as they could get the funding, they rented a car, secured a sublet in the Bywater, and headed to New Orleans.
There, they encountered a string of memorable characters who talked about what Katrina has meant: waterlogged family photos, or being spattered with blood from a shooting in the Superdome. Political and social commentary arise from everyday life, according to the Pincus-Small mantra of “No experts, no celebrities.”
Both directors were committed to making themselves a part of the movie, discussing their own thoughts and fears as they road-tripped through the “Katrina diaspora” from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh. They take turns narrating, all the while examining their prejudices about the South and their reactions to their subjects. Occasionally, they fight. Still, the movie is emphatically not about them.
“We tried to keep a delicate balance, because this is a film about a disaster,” says Pincus firmly. “We’re just literary conceits.”
“Everyman,” adds Small. “And by turning the camera on ourselves, we wanted to reveal who has the privilege of telling the story.” Were the New Orleanians they met ever frustrated by Pincus and Small’s own privilege? “Ya ever read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner?” asks Pincus. “You know how he just has to tell the story? Well, that’s the way people were when we were in the Lower Ninth.
“[The people] who didn’t want us to tell the story were always FEMA people.”