On April 27, 2011, a powerful storm system unleashed a deadly series of tornadoes across central Alabama that devastated several cities. The largest tornado, which was categorized an F4, ripped through the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, area with winds up to 260 miles per hour, traveling over a distance of 80 miles, with a path of destruction up to 1.5 miles wide. When it was over, the tornado had killed 64 people and injured more than 1,500.
Alabama-based documentary filmmaker and teacher Andrew Beck Grace survived the storm, and as he discovered in the days to come, numbers and adjectives — even images — only go so far in describing what it means to wake up to your world completely rearranged.
Grace has produced a unique interactive documentary about the aftermath in Tuscaloosa called After the Storm. It tells the story of what happens after the storm passes, after the media leaves town, and after the adrenaline subsides. Independent Lens is proud to co-present this interactive documentary with The Washington Post, launching today (April 27) on the 4th anniversary of the storm.
After you immerse yourself in After the Storm, read the following interview we conducted with Grace about producing this unique work, one which hit very close to home.
Why did you want to make After the Storm?
This piece was created as a personal response to surviving a significant natural disaster. There’s an inevitable question we face in the midst of trauma – how to go forth in a world that is radically changed? So I wanted to figure out how to deal with that question, and this interactive documentary is part of that process.
And why did you want to make this an online, interactive documentary experience, rather than a straightforward traditional doc?
I told this story this way because there was no better way to tell it. The experience was very personal and my first instinct was to write about it. Writing in the first person gives a very intimate and engaged experience to the reader, and I wanted to translate that to a filmic experience. So crafting this spoken word piece that was built around imagery and sound seemed like a more natural fit than a conventional filmed documentary.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making it?
This is a very personal project about loss and change, so working through the content of the piece was in some ways difficult but in other ways very therapeutic. The medium was the real challenge. This is my first foray into the Wild West of web-based interactive documentary. Because I was new to the medium, I had trust my collaborators implicitly and our working relationship was key to the success of the piece. Working with Helios Design Lab, the co-producers and designers of the project, was a real privilege, and I think we proved that the gap between technologist, designer, and filmmaker is more perceived than actual.
How did the experience of putting this film project together affect you after all you’ve been through? Was it a cathartic experience to produce this?
It definitely was an emotional experience. I was in DC on September 11th, 2001 and I saw the smoke coming from the Pentagon that morning. In the days following, I refused to watch the image of the planes crashing into the towers because I felt like I didn’t need to see the filmed version, having seen it in person. Ever since, I’ve refused to look at those images. And in a similar way, I really did not want to look at the imagery of the tornado coming through Tuscaloosa. Having survived the storm by huddling in the dark in our hallway closet, I didn’t want to see all the incredible footage that folks around the city had captured of that monster tornado coming through. So revisiting all of that footage in making this project was a difficult thing for me. And it’s actually intentional that there is not a single scene that includes the storm itself besides a few oblique and lyrical visual references.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
Is there a particular scene or sequence that especially moved or resonated with you?
There is a sequence about visiting my neighborhood virtually through Google Maps. As you may know, Google Street View has an option to go back and see earlier photographs of the same location. A year or so after the storm, Google came back through and updated the photos from my neighborhood. So you can navigate now between images from before the storm and after. I still remember the first time I compared the two and how devastating it was to be reminded of how much had been lost – especially the trees. There’s a sequence that replicates that experience for the viewer.
What was the process like in producing this?
It was a unique process working on this interactive documentary. The design team was based in Toronto, and we worked remotely for 8 months, doing basically weekly Google Hangouts and sharing files across the internet. For a web-based story, we really harnessed all the resources of the web to even create the piece in the first place! We finally met in March at SXSW where we presented After the Storm at a panel on interactive documentary. It was great to meet in person after all that time working through the story virtually.
What are films that have inspired you?
Off the top of my head it would be Salesman, by the Maysles brothers, because it was the film that made me want to make documentaries. Raising Arizona, by the Coen brothers because it’s just about perfect and I don’t think people take comedies seriously enough. Further, it’s a movie I can pretty much quote in its entirety. And Mullholland Drive, by David Lynch because I remember seeing it in the theatre and not wanting it to end. Lynch reminds me of how much is possible with cinema.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
- Read three books for every movie you see.
- Listen more than you talk.
- Write your ideas down every day.
- Be kind to the people you work with.
- Remember that making films is a privilege, and always be grateful when people are willing to share their stories with you.
- But mainly, just do the work.
Do you plan on doing more interactive documentaries in the future? What projects are you planning next?
I loved the challenge of working on this project and working in a new and uncharted medium. It was thrilling, and I hope to make more projects like this. I especially want to work on more interactive docs now that I’ve found such great collaborators in Helios. But my next project, which we’ve just begun shooting, is a feature-length doc about a man who spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row. He was recently released, and we’re working to tell the story of his return to the world after 30 years basically in solitary confinement. But there are elements from that story that could work as stand-alone interactive pieces, and I feel certain there’ll be a strong interactive component to that film project.