Despite the surge of images in the media of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there was little 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 20 percent of his students were on their own, without parents. Some lived with extended family, some with other kids and some alone.
I responded to this news by making 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, which connected me to Rachel Grady (The Boys of Baraka and 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, these are a challenge to pull off. A successful documentary provides the viewer with 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, and focusing on issues related to 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 film.
Andre actually did what most of his peers did and followed his elders out of the city. His father drove him westward and promised they would make a home in California. The promises of Andre’s father became reality in the form of a new school, new people, new life. But these didn’t belong to Andre, and he chose to return to New Orleans alone.
After the hurricane, the flooding and the displacement, many students, including Andre, desired to graduate high school with their friends. These students wanted to be in the only place they had ever called home — New Orleans. They returned to the Big Easy and found surrogate homes there, while their displaced parents rebuilt their own lives in other cities and states. Some students lived with 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 for the film was altered; I realized that the documentary was no longer illustrating how these students define home, but instead was showing how their school had become their home. For these young people, who lacked the solid foundation of a family home, school became a crucial part of daily existence. Unfortunately, the New Orleans Recovery School District is unstable, and its students have high rates of truancy.
It is my hope that once today’s politicians and citizens understand the role that the school plays for the youth of post-Katrina New Orleans, they will push for equal standards of education as they did in the not-too-distant past.
— Annie P. Waldman, Director, Co-producer