When the Levees Broke

The little-seen Low and Behold is the best film about Hurricane Katrina for the way it achieves artfulness without exploiting tragedy.

Zack Godshall

When it comes to films and TV shows about Hurricane Katrina, a few in particular tend to stick out. Most notably, Benh Zeitlin’s Oscar-nominated film Beasts of the Southern Wild and David Simon’s HBO series Treme, both of which were met with acclaim and warm critical receptions. Then there’s whacked-out action fare including Déjà Vu and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which use post-Katrina New Orleans to provide a gritty backdrop for their offbeat narratives. No list of Katrina films would be complete without David Fincher’s wildly divisive The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which incorporates Katrina’s landfall as a framing device for a melancholy story about the ravages of time, to mixed results. But few have seen or heard of Zack Godshall’s 2007 film Low and Behold, which was the first feature film to dramatize Katrina and which Sundance released on a slew of on-demand platforms on August 18 to mark the 10-year anniversary of the storm.

The film, which follows an insurance adjuster as he surveys the remains of New Orleans, was made in 2006, just eight months after Katrina made landfall, when the city was still struggling to pull itself out from under the rubble left by the failure of the levees. However, despite premiering at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, Low and Behold never received an official theatrical or video release. So why should viewers see this obscure film now, 10 years after Katrina, if at all? Not only is the movie itself aesthetically stunning, but it’s also one of those rare commercial films about a large-scale tragedy that manages to express something true and meaningful without coming off as pandering or exploitative. It’s this balance that perhaps makes Low and Behold the best film about Hurricane Katrina that most people have never seen.

It’s a given that any commercial film claiming to be “based on a true story” is in some way exploiting a real-life event, perhaps to inspire, inform, or infuriate, but almost always to profit. Still, things get dicier when it comes to a for-profit film representing a massive disaster like 9/11 or Katrina. These films must negotiate the slippery intersection of tragedy, art, and exploitation in the struggle to pay the proper respect to the event while also managing to express something true about it in an artful way. It’s an aesthetic tightrope walk, and often the pressure is too much for the film to bear, generally resulting in an overly cautious, toothless film filled with platitudes. For every United 93, there are three World Trade Centers.

Low and Behold belongs to the small group of films that gets it right. And “getting it right” goes far beyond the film’s treatment of New Orleans residents and Katrina’s victims, something that Louisiana natives are notoriously persnickety about. More simply, the film guides the audience from an outside position of voyeuristic exploitation to an inside position of empathetic understanding. In short, Low and Behold doesn’t try to dodge the intersection of tragedy, art, and exploitation—it addresses those problems head-on through its choice of characters, the storylines, and the filmmaking style itself.

The film wastes no time in immersing viewers in the cynical world of profiteering. Unlike the stars of other Katrina productions, the film’s main character, Turner Stull (co-writer Barlow Jacobs) isn’t a victim. He’s an insurance adjuster coming to New Orleans to work for his uncle (Robert Longstreet) and make a little cash off the epic misfortunes of others. In another era, he’d be called a carpetbagger, but in any era, he’s no hero. Before Turner can even unpack his things, Uncle Stull throws a company polo at him and enlists him in his first act of cold-hearted opportunism, which is to help Uncle Stull move in a sofa that he took from “an abandoned Baptist church.” This moment, while innocuous in and of itself, captures the truth of their role in the city, showing how their comfort—literally—comes at the expense of someone else’s.

The reality of what they’re doing in New Orleans never occurs to Uncle Stull and the other adjusters. In fact, they actively craft a narrative that paints them as heroes rather than pillagers. An early party scene expresses this idea even more explicitly. In a homage to the greed-soaked pep talks from Wall Street or Glengarry Glen Ross, Victor (Mark Krasnoff), whom Uncle Stull calls “the god of insurance adjusters,” rallies the new employees of his company, Bridge Catastrophe Services, by telling them about what he prays for every night: “a catastrophe that causes massive property damage” but claims no lives. “This is the business we are in,” he says. “There is Mother Nature ... and the insured. We are the Bridge.”

As altruistic as he tries to sound, this bridge’s only purpose is to connect the adjusters to their share of the insurance payouts, with the victims wallowing anonymously in the water below. Uncle Stull, a character incapable of such rhetorical niceties, puts it bluntly: “We’re insurance adjusters, not the Red Cross.” It’s moments like these early on that make the viewers rather uncomfortable—they realize they’re following the bad guys. Perhaps the viewers even are the bad guys, and Low and Behold makes them worry whether there’s anything that they, as outsiders to the tragedy, can do to understand, let alone make things better.

The viewers’ dilemma makes Turner an ideal character for a film about Katrina because he becomes a stand-in for them as he moves from being a detached observer to an engaged participant. At first, he tries his hardest to limit his exposure to the tragedy of Katrina. It’s 15 minutes per house, tops, because time is money. But as Turner gets more immersed in the job, he becomes more interested in assessing the damage done to the people, not the property, to his uncle’s dismay. This is what happens to the audience as well: With the help of a camera, viewers come to Low and Behold to see a damaged New Orleans, a city drowning in mold and debris that no production designer or CGI wizard could recreate. Soon they not only find themselves transformed by what they see—they, like Turner, even begin to see differently.

Turner’s conversion begins when his ladder falls out from under him, leaving him stuck on a roof and begging a local named Nixon (Eddie Rouse, in an endearing, layered performance) to rescue him. The irony here works on several levels: Even though he’s on high ground, Turner finds he is no longer in the superior position he previously enjoyed. He had to climb up on a roof to be brought down to size. The deeper irony, however, is that in losing his ladder, Turner becomes like the scores of People Stuck on a Roof who flooded television screens in the days after Katrina. Now that he’s experienced a taste of what the victims of Katrina went through, he can start to empathize.

The filmmaking is always ahead of Turner and the audience in this journey. In Turner’s hands, the camera starts out merely as a tool to document the damage so that he can make money; however, in Godshall’s hands, the camera turns into a witness to the testimony of others. The film blends scripted scenes with improvised bits and documentary footage, opening up the structure of the film to be looser and more responsive to the real events that happened during production. In fact, when the film begins, it’s unclear whether it’s documentary or fiction, because shots of a car driving across a bridge are intercut with a subtitled interview with an iceman whose life has been washed away. It takes several minutes before viewers understand the film’s hybrid approach, by which point they’ve already surrendered to the way Godshall wants to tell the story.

Though film is an inherently visual medium, Low and Behold makes the act of listening, rather than speaking, its aesthetic principle. Turner complains that the victims are slowing down his progress because “they won’t stop” telling their stories to him. For an exploiter, listening is a liability. But the narrative often stops moving forward to listen to survivor testimony via formal interviews or chance encounters on the street. In doing so, the film allows these nonprofessionals to take control of the film’s direction. While this may come off as undisciplined filmmaking, it’s also the empathetic, less agenda-centered approach necessary to avoid taking advantage of the victims while cutting them out of their own story.

Godshall’s film adapts to the situation on the ground and often lets the events tell themselves. As a result, he captures the bleak reality of post-Katrina New Orleans, an empty city populated with a few hundred people who can only comb through what used to be their homes in a dazed despair. The movie is filled with small graceful notes, like a moment when two debris clearers, who don’t seem to be aware of the camera filming them, find a barbell in the rubble and take turns doing reps and laughing. In these scenes, Godshall captures south Louisiana in its most accurate form—a place where the tragic and the comic perpetually coexist as residents try to reimpose order on their environment.

There’s an impossible gulf between the people who experienced Hurricane Katrina and those who didn’t, especially 10 years later. But Low and Behold reveals to viewers that this gulf only seems unbridgeable, and that the camera can carry the audience to a place it cannot reach on its own. As extended metaphors for the film, ladders and bridges could not suit Low and Behold better. They’re not just about connecting one thing to another: They also take people up. Ladders and bridges are outlets of escape, rescue, and ascent. The film might have more narrative closure if its final shot were on a bridge, but instead Godshall ends the film with the camera traveling down a road alone. What this ending makes abundantly clear is that, while we may keep moving at the end of the film, there’s no going back to the way things were before, not for the survivors, not for the audience, not for anyone, not even 10 years later. But once a bridge has made a connection, it’s not an easy thing to destroy, even for a hurricane.