For three of its four producers, Getting Back to Abnormal is a coming home of sorts. Louis Alvarez, Andy Kolker and Paul Stekler began their filmmaking careers in New Orleans, and the city will always exert its power and mystery over our hearts and minds. For Peter Odabashian, the culture of the Crescent City has been more of an acquired taste that materialized over several years while we were immersed in the project.
We knew at the outset that we wanted to make a film that captured at least a healthy morsel of the essence of the place — what we knew as intimate participants when we lived there, and what we saw as educated observers after we left. We felt that too many post-Katrina documentaries settled for presenting overly simplistic narratives that didn’t recognize the complexity that has always been part of the city’s DNA. In New Orleans, the tribal instincts of insular racial groups have often trumped the self-mythologizing “we’re-all-like-a-gumbo” attitude touted to tourists and anthropologists.
And the familiar narrative of the city’s victimhood is undercut by the reality that the city and its inhabitants — both powerful and not — have often been complicit in their own misfortune: the culture of Mardi Gras and street parades is also a culture of corruption and inefficiency, of bad schools and high crime. We thought that a film that attempted to weave a variety of stories together into a compelling tapestry would best be suited to presenting this contradictory world — and to giving the viewer a real sense of what it’s like to live in the city and think like a New Orleanian.
The subtle — and not-so-subtle — issue of race, which should be front and center in any portrait of New Orleans, also directed our search for stories and came to the forefront in the local spectator sport, municipal politics. When we began shooting, the political winds seemed to be shifting: as the black population declined, white politicians were making a comeback after decades of African-American control.
We found that a white city councilperson named Stacy Head had been grabbing headlines with her sharp tongue and take-no-prisoners attitude toward government accountability, and in the process she had become a racial piñata for many blacks who thought her at the very least insensitive to their concerns. We soon discovered Head’s unlikely companion-in-arms, Barbara Lacen-Keller, a respected black community organizer who gives new meaning to the word “outspoken.” Head’s re-election campaign against African-American preacher and novice politician Corey Watson, himself the son of a politically active preacher, became the backbone of our film as we got up close and personal with both campaigns, warts and all.
There were other stories we discovered. A huge number of (mostly) black residents have been displaced since the storm, their houses destroyed by floods or controversial urban renewal. Housing has become a huge issue in New Orleans, and we followed both community activists and high-flying “starchitects” as they tried to tackle the problem, each in his or her own way. Finally, we went to the streets to bask in the rich local culture that makes everyone fall in love with the place: the second-line parades, po-boy festivals and Saints celebrations that seem to wait around every corner.
In Getting Back to Abnormal, we’ve tried to give the viewer a different, more intimate perspective of what it’s like to be in one of the few truly unique places left in America. We hope that we have succeeded.
— Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, Peter Odabashian and Paul Stekler, Producers/Directors