g The Film Panel Notetaker: Interview: "The Axe in the Attic" Filmmakers Ed Pincus & Lucia Small

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Interview: "The Axe in the Attic" Filmmakers Ed Pincus & Lucia Small

The Axe in the Attic Filmmakers
Ed Pincus & Lucia Small

Photo credit: Henry Morgan

On Saturday, filmmakers Ed Pincus and Lucia Small will present their documentary The Axe in the Attic at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria at 6:30pm. I highly encourage anyone who will be in the area to attend this film about their personal journey to chronicle the people who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina and how their lives were affected by its aftermath. I had a chance to interview Ed and Lucia about the making of their film. What follows is a transcript of that interview. You will have a chance to ask your own questions after the screening this Saturday, as Ed and Lucia will be available then for a Q&A moderated by the Museum’s Livia Bloom, where I will of course be taking notes.

TFPN: Ed, after running your farm in Vermont for 25 years, how did you get in touch with Lucia, or how did she get in touch with you, to make this film?

Ed: In 2002, I got invited to speak at a panel discussion at the New England Film & Video Festival in Boston and said, I’ve been out of filmmaking for 25 years, what could I possibly do? They encouraged me to come. I met Lucia there. Our responses to films were amazingly similar. We had very similar sensibilities, so she was more accepting of stuff than I was in general. We said when the right circumstances happen, we’ll try to make a film together. From a personal point of view, when I was looking at what filmmakers were doing and I thought I was out of it, I felt in fact that I understood that the problems were still there. They hadn’t changed that much in 25 years. It all seemed like an exciting possibility.

Lucia: It was interesting. Whenever you sit on those panels, you’re with someone for four days to think about the possibility of collaborating with them. The reason why I was at the panel was because my film My Father the Genius had won an award the year before and I hadn’t really realized how Ed’s autobiographical filmmaking diaries sort of influenced me. It was sort of a generation of filmmakers who started making autobiographical films, Ed being the teacher [at MIT’s Film Section] of Ross McElwee and Rob Moss. Ross is a big inspiration of mine. It was very interesting for me to sort of find that similarity and approach as well. It was challenging, too, to bring Ed back to film because the one thing that’s so different from film is that formats are constantly changing. I hadn’t even realized to what extent that impacted the filmmaking process because there’s a lot of liberation that comes with a format that stays stable for a long time and you can focus more on the story and the filmmaking itself versus figuring out the technology.

TFPN: When you started on your two-month trip from New England to New Orleans three months after the storms, did you have in mind the current title of the film, or when did you determine the title?

Ed: An interesting anecdote is we were filming our reactions, and we do have a scene in the car where one of us says, “did you hear what he said about the axe in the attic?” And the other said, “yeah that’s really interesting,” or something like that. So it was arresting to us at the time. Maybe Lucia remembers if that was the time we decided we’d use that title. We had different working titles.

Lucia: That’s a pretty good story. It happened really early on with the pastor in Pittsburgh, and he told us that story that you see in the film and we were struck by that. And it wasn’t the first time people told us that same story. It was repeated in different ways and we just thought it resonated with us as a perfect metaphor for what we felt was the issue and problem. Sort of the notion of being left alone in your attic to chop through it with rising waters.

TFPN: Did you have any other titles in mind before choosing The Axe in the Attic?

Ed: We had different working titles. Lucia, do you remember it?

Lucia: I remember the working title. Part of it is sort of the filmmaking process. We called it After the Storm, because we didn’t want a controversial title while we were out in the field, because everyone always asks you what’s the name of your film, and so we felt that was a general enough title. We didn’t want to use it ultimately, but that’s what we called it for a long time.

TFPN: Did you feel like you were taking a risk turning the cameras onto yourselves to become a part of the story, or did you feel it was organically already a part of the story?

Lucia: I found it very risky. In fact, I was talking with another autobiographical filmmaker in town today and saying it’s so interesting because it appears to be so easy, because the access is easy. You are filming your life. There’s an ease to that. This film, we knew would post huge challenges. How do you approach such a large topic that’s so politically layered? So many people have seen it through the news and other storytelling forms that it’s a huge risk to insert yourself. That was one of the biggest challenges of this film. So on the one hand, it comes naturally, but it’s much more challenging than it appears.

Ed: I made a bunch of movies and one was interpreting what the diaries form would be. I decided that I was going to film for five years (1971-76). I was going to let it sit in the can for five years. I naively assumed…partially the arithmetic was faulty and everything would be 10 years old, or some of it was five years old, so when I started off, I thought time would insulate me from risk taking so to speak, beyond the normal risk taking in the film. In some sense, you’re trying to experiment with the forms. That gave me the freedom to film anything I wanted for five years without having to worry about it. In fact, I would say if anything, it’s more organic for Lucia to do it, but she had more struggle with it. Does that sound fair?

Lucia: Yes, I’m not shy about it. It’s a very complicated thing to try to insert yourself into this grandiose story, but on the other hand, it sort of felt more honest to us. We wanted to tackle the notion of who tells the story, who is behind the camera. You can hide behind the camera in these social documentary films. That’s an easier thing for some viewers to digest and accept, because in a way, many of us want to hide behind the camera. We want to hide behind the screen. This was a way to sort of break that and sort of mix it up. I guess it’s a long answer to me finding it more organic, but more difficult. I think Ed shares a lot of these concerns, too.

Ed: Yes, that was a mutually agreed upon reason for doing this. In general in social documentaries, people always know what’s right or wrong. There’s a shared pact that the filmmakers will protect themselves from ambiguity. In some sense, I think we wanted to question that because we thought that would just get to another level. It’s easy to look at the TV and hate Bush, and it’s not like we don’t do that, too, but in part that’s what the film is about.

Lucia: Here’s what’s hard: when someone doesn’t see the layers and complexities of this film and basically thinks we’re comparing our problems to Katrina. It’s just the total opposite. We’re using juxtapositions in the film. We’re a device for that. So when that’s misinterpreted, it’s hurtful and it makes me question the approach sometimes, but I still stand by the approach. It’s sometimes difficult for the filmmaker.

TFPN: Lucia, is this a style you have employed in your other documentaries?

Lucia: Yes. My first film My Father the Genius is about my father. It was in festivals all across the country and in Europe.

Ed: It’s a wonderful film. It was a great part of how I thought we could work great together.

Lucia: And then I watched some of Ed’s early work and was really interested by the rawness of some of it, which was some of the stuff I was trying to do with My Father the Genius, because there’s always a delicate line when you’re doing autobiographical films. When you’re doing any film, how much do you reveal? How much do you show of your vulnerability? So it made sense, our collaboration.

TFPN: Many of the people you interviewed seemed very embittered and impassioned about the aftermath of Katrina and the lack of response by FEMA. Have you gotten back in touch with any of them since completing the film? Do you know what they’re doing now and how they feel two years later? Have you shown the film to any of them, or are you aware if they have seen it yet? What have their responses been?

Ed: The coda was done about a half year ago and we were in touch with everybody we could get in touch with. So in the subsequent four or five months, we’ve been in touch I think about half the people, but not all of them. And essentially some things really didn’t change very much. As far as we know, only two have seen the film recently, so we haven’t gotten any feedback. I think in a month, if we haven’t heard back from them, we’ll call them or they’ll call us.

Lucia: I think one of the big problems with all this displacement is a lot of their cell phones expired because they were New Orleans numbers and now they’re relocated to different areas and their cell phones went down. They had those three- or six-month cell phone plans, so a lot of those ran out, and they didn’t have a way to re-new it. In fact, some of them got sacked with huge bills that were shocking to them. One of our characters, Ray Cross, when we were leaving New Orleans, was going to try to fight a $2,000 bill that he had because he was living in Alabama and didn’t realize he was getting roaming charges. We have tried to stay in touch with people. I was hoping that with some of the screenings, we could even bring them to the screenings and we would get a screening in New Orleans where we could probably have a reunion. It was one of the big challenges of filming, trying to approach the whole notion of diaspora and displacement. It’s hard to find some of these people.

Ed: We did that in the coda because of the inability to get in touch with somebody that even if it was a short period of time, you had an intimate relationship with.

TFPN: In the coda, it says FEMA made it difficult for you to film in the FEMA trailer parks. What were some of their reasons or excuses they gave you?

Ed: Privacy. They were protecting privacy, but it was bullshit, because when it came down to them looking good, they even illegally revealed secret things about people that they had no business doing.

Lucia: It was huge media management. We got a friendly person who got us approval to go to the parks. It was a two-hour drive from New Orleans and we traveled back and forth to the park. After a week of going back and forth, when we tried to come back again, there was a FEMA entourage managing the media there and they prohibited us from filming without them being next to us.

Ed: They had to be next to us, and we had to make an appointment.

Lucia: And they wouldn’t let us film Christmas or New Year’s, because those were private days. They started to have all these rules and regulations. And even after we left the park in Alabama, we tried to get into another park in that state, and we were told flatly that we weren’t allowed.

TFPN: Lucia, to the man in the film who asked you to send him money from the earnings of the film when you had asked them to sign the releases, did you ever send him anything?

Lucia: What happened was he and his wife were signing the release form and a volunteer asked to see it. We wrote into the clause that if there’s a profit made on the film, he would be compensated. It was very general that line he had asked for. And the whole notion of $5 came up when the volunteer said, why don’t you give him $5 or at least mention that you’re going to give him some money for filming, so that got into the scene. My dream as a filmmaker is still there to align this film with a foundation that could help use it. I think the thing we both left that scene saying to each other, as you see in the car, that it was very disturbing for me on an emotional level mainly because I think we were both on the same side of the volunteer and Ed and I were trying to help in different ways. I think what we realized is what we could do was we could try to make the best film possible and give that to the people we were filming so that there stories would be told and remembered. And so that was the mantra we kept reminding ourselves about. I was more ambivalent about it. I still am, but it is an important story to be told.

TFPN: I’m sorry I missed The Axe in the Attic at the New York Film Festival. When it played there, did you both do a Q&A with the audience? What was the audience’s reaction? What were some of the questions they asked you, and what were some of your answers?

Ed: Yes. When it got exciting, we got cut off. Correct me if I’m wrong Lucia, I think the thing that set people off was the notion that you couldn’t just blame the Bush Administration. There’s a sense of shared responsibility because of the kind of history of inequality. And then somebody said that nobody in this room is responsible. And then somebody said, “Oh yes, we are!” It started a shouting match. Is that pretty accurate Lucia?

Lucia: Right. We had two Q&As. One was for the press and we had one for the audience. They were both intense. They both triggered things in people, and I think the one in the public audience was good because people responded with their gut, and I think that was what was exciting for us because those two points of view are exactly what we wanted to try to open up for discussion. I think even at the Q&A at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in Boston, it went on and on there were lots of people who could have talked forever about the topic. It was just very rewarding to see that the complexities of the story were resonating. People get really upset about it, they don’t know what to do. There’s still big questions about what to do about this issue. The same thing about this film. There’s no resolution right now. It’s the law of historical struggle.

TFPN: On The Axe in the Attic website, it says “Coming Soon” for Axe Facts and Outreach. What do you plan to have on those pages?

Ed: Let me tell you what I hope to be putting there. I hope to put everything that’s implied in the film and said. Almost everything that people say in the film is contradicted somewhere else, so I want this to basically have everything outlined as best as is known and discuss some of the issues the film raises that really are unresolved. How many people died to what FEMA actually did. It turned out to be a very difficult task. We barely made it over the finish line and we were both exhausted and totally depleted and ran out of money to have somebody do research and we did try to get some volunteers to research it. To them, if they found it on the Internet, that was good enough, and I really wanted to have it incredibly accurate. I wanted everything that’s ambiguous in the film to be backed up with well corroborated and acceptable sources. It was the combination of no money and the volunteer research was not up to snuff to do it.

Lucia: We are spending a lot of effort trying to figure out who can help us with outreach, getting the screeners to everybody, trying to come up with a plan. We had grand ambitions for the supplemental materials for the website. We haven’t given up on it yet, but it’s still coming soon.

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