Other than Juvenile’s wildly irresponsible “Get Ya Hustle On” video (wherein, against a background of fresh destruction, Juve urges New Orleanians to sell crack), not much entertainment was filmed in the city directly after the flood, when the boards of every broken New Orleans home were still visibly gorged with water. Everything since has been a recreation of that time. Even Treme, for all its cinematic beauty, often looks too dry, filmed as it is in the present. Not so with Flood Streets, a disarmingly lighthearted and well-made, 100-percent local indie film that perfectly conveys the physical and mental dampness of that year after Katrina.
“As soon as we finished fixing up our house, we started filming pick-up shots, knowing we were going to make a movie,” says Helen Krieger, writer and co-director of Flood Streets. After the flood, Krieger quit her Bywater/Marigny real estate agent gig, and folded The Bywater-Marigny Current newspaper she had helped found. Krieger and husband Joseph Meissner sold their house, moved into the back of Meissner’s Powerful Fitness martial arts studio on St. Claude Avenue, and used the money to produce Flood Streets, based on Krieger’s short story collection, In the Land of What Now.
Meissner, an actor who has in the past worked with famous New York theater director Andre Gregory (My Dinner with Andre) and writer/director Lee Breuer, co-directed Flood Streets and also plays Matt, the live-in boyfriend of Feliciana (Rachel Dupard). As the couple drifts apart, Matt becomes silently obsessed with the buxom dental student (Ava Santana) who works on his teeth. The student’s teacher/boss is played by famous local Harry Shearer of This is Spinal Tap and The Simpsons fame, who currently hosts Le Show on NPR. Shearer, whose levee-failure documentary The Big Uneasy has been making the festival rounds this year, was an early supporter of the Flood Streets script, helping gain the production support and attention.
Rather than dealing with overly dramatic events, Flood Streets’ characters concern themselves with life’s basics, which the movie portrays as the search for love, money and pot. A secondary plot concerns a young, white, stoner real estate agent name Madeline, who has the unenviable job of appraising flooded houses while writing beautiful songs on the side. Played by musician Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond, the Decemberists), Madeline comes across an elderly squatter living out her last days amid the mold. Conflicted, Stark silently refuses to report her, especially once she discovers the woman has a seemingly never-ending supply of weed. Stark spends most of the movie acting stoned off her face, which flirts with annoying but in the end translates as verisimilitude. The character’s haziness also helps make plausible her going along with a friend’s scheme to collect welfare money on five imaginary children. “We did use pot to give the audience that feeling of, ‘I hope this plan they’re hatching never goes beyond the pipe dream stage,’” laughs Krieger. “But it was more just capturing this time after the flood when people couldn’t get pot, which is almost as much a part of the party culture as booze. And because this was a time when there were few mental services in town, the characters in Flood Streets smoke to heighten their awareness, but also just to cope. And because most Katrina movies are very serious, we used pot as an excuse for irreverent humor.”
Because of the movie’s heavy emphasis on music—Zydepunks, Panorama Jazz Band and Debauche are all on the soundtrack—inevitable comparisons will be made to Treme, but Flood Streets doesn’t force the city to be a character. Though we might assume that Matt’s obsession with his dentist is brought on by some sort of post-flood depressive episode, it could just as easily have nothing to do with New Orleans, which is pretty refreshing for a New Orleans production. Still, no one who puts the city on film can resist the ubiquitous second line scene (this one featuring Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Meschiya Lake), but for the most part, Flood Streets lets the characters be the characters, organically navigating a gorgeous, difficult and profoundly affecting setting that the viewer will surely feel the presence of without too many cue cards.
Since its release this past spring, Flood Streets has traveled around the country winning awards at film festivals. But Krieger and Meissner are most excited about their upcoming local premiere at the New Orleans Film Festival. “Having gone to so many festivals by now, we realize how big of a deal this is,” says Krieger. “Everywhere we go, people are very jealous that we even got into the New Orleans Film Festival.”
Meissner, Krieger, Harry Shearer and members of the cast and crew will be at The Prytania to answer questions after the 4:45 p.m showing of Flood Streets on Sunday, October 16.