Katrina's Forgotten Teens: Can Film Foster Change?

"When we left the superdome, we just walked out and went to Burger King, and listened to my recorder. I recorded the band a lot when I was at Carver [high school]. We sitting in that Burger King, sitting there listening to it, the volume all the way up. The next thing I know my brother, Brandon, started crying, like man, that's gone, you know. We ain't gonna have none of that no more.... it ain't never gonna be the same. We gotta start over - new school, new everything." Andre (17), New Orleans

Despite the surge of images in the media following Hurricane Katrina, the press failed to focus on one of the disaster's most vulnerable populations: the youth of New Orleans. A year and a half after the storm, my cousin Daniel, a New Orleans high school teacher, told me that about twenty percent of his students were on their own, without parents. Some lived with extended family, some with other kids, and some alone.

Daniel's story inspired me to explore this overlooked phenomenon with my short documentary, So The Wind Won't Blow It All Away. I made the film with the support of the Reach Film Fellowship from Cinereach, who connected me with Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Rachel Grady (Boys of Baraka, Jesus Camp).

As my Fellowship mentor, Grady taught me two fundamentals of documentary - first, you have to make your audience care, and second, you have to establish context. Though simply stated, it is a challenge to pull off. If successful, docs provide the viewer with an immediacy of behavior, "a force of reality." It is this force that generates a sense of responsibility in the audience, a responsibility that stimulates change.

Upon arriving in New Orleans, I spent three weeks shadowing two high school social workers, Cheryl Lobdell and Fran Purcell, focusing on their issues having students without guardians. My successive interviews led me to three students living on their own: Maurice, Jasmine and Andre, who became the subjects of my short doc.

Andre followed his elders out of his city, as all of his peers did. His father drove him west, to find a home in California. There, his predictions became reality: new school, new people, new life. But they didn't belong to him and he chose to return alone.

After the hurricane, the flooding and the displacement, many students desired, like Andre, to graduate high school with their friends. These students wanted to be in the only home they had ever known, New Orleans. They returned to the Big Easy, finding surrogate homes while their displaced parents in other cities and states rebuilt their own lives. Some lived with other family members or close family friends, but in a number of cases, these students chose to live with each other, without any adult authority at all.

After just a short period of time, my objective altered; I realized that the documentary was no longer illustrating how these students define their homes, but rather, how their school had become their homes. For these students without a solid foundation at home, the school becomes a crucial part of daily existence. Unfortunately, with the instability of the New Orleans Recovery School District, there are high rates of truancy amongst many of the students.

With the understanding of the role that the school plays for the youth of post-Katrina New Orleans, it is my hope that today's politicians and citizens alike will push for equal standards of education as they did in the not too distant past.