Locked at the End of the World


NOTE: Antenna will host a screening of Locked on Thursday, June 13th, 7PM including a Q&A with directors, Daneeta Loretta Jackson and Patrick Jackson (ElekTrikZoo.com).

People call a lot of places around here the “end of the world.” First time I heard the term it was on a Grand Isle beach with some friends after the 2010 BP oil spill. The name made sense, especially with our feet sinking in the warm wet sand as we counted drilling platforms in the distance, just down the way from where environmental clean-up crews dealt with the brown tar washed ashore. The moniker came up again for Cocodrie, a dot on the map at the gulf front end of Highway 56, and again for Shell Beach on Lake Bourne and Delacroix Island deep in Saint Bernard Parish. The nickname seems fitting for these places, as to go any further you’d need a boat. Beyond, no infrastructure, no people. Just marsh grass, water, and sky as far as the eye can see. Now, standing on the Industrial Canal levee behind the abandoned Naval Support Activity Base Buildings, I’m confused. Some people call this strip of land the “end of the world” too, but looking out across to the Lower Ninth Ward where I can clearly see (and could converse with if not for the loud hum of a barge floating nearby) a man pushing a cart full of building supplies.

From this vantage point, more than a dozen rooftops peak above the levee on the other side and traffic streams back and forth across the St. Claude bascule bridge. A noisy beauty resides here along the lock: turtles sunning themselves on a rickety metal ramp, mounds of puffy purple clover scenting the wind, vibrant murals and tags painting almost every surface with erratic color. The place is alive and seemingly far from the end of the world, especially as the bridge cranks open and another barge sails out from the Industrial Canal Lock, which is the subject of the 2018 documentary Locked by ElekTrik Zoo filmmakers, Daneeta Loretta Jackson and Patrick Jackson.

Locked stirred audiences at its premiere last October at the 29th annual New Orleans Film Festival. In just twelve minutes, the documentary tells the tumultuous story of the Industrial Canal and Lock from its construction in the early 20th century to its latest looming chapter. This June, the Army Corps of Engineers returns to Congress to propose their one billion dollar Lock Replacement Project that would expand the lock, allowing for more barge traffic and taking roughly thirteen years to build. The film is cleverly constructed from the perspective of urban ecologist, Dr. Joshua Lewis, which is an impressive feat. This history spans roughly a hundred years and has many angles, eras, twists, and turns to keep straight.

“We came at it in a different way because I don’t consider ourselves to be documentary filmmakers,” Ms. Jackson said on a hot Monday morning in their office on Burgundy, not far from the Lock itself. “We make primarily narrative films, and if we get close to documentary, it’s hybrid. So, we wanted to infuse a narrative structure onto a documentary subject.” This is one of the main reasons they chose Dr. Lewis to lead viewers through the “critical junctures” and current state of the canal and lock from an ecological point of view. He’s a natural storyteller and the impact on the ecology of this region connects the tributary stories together.

Jackson says they were inspired by the way documentarian Errol Morris can craft his narratives from one point of view. Part of his style comes from the use of an Interrotron technique, wherein a modified teleprompter projects the interviewer’s image directly in front of the camera, creating an eyeline that reads as if the interviewee is speaking to the audience. Essentially, the subject looks into the camera lens naturally, and the result is intimate and effective. In this way, Dr. Lewis guides the audience through complicated history with authority and care.

Narrating events following the opening of the Industrial Canal in 1923, Dr. Lewis explains the “perception of risk” to New Orleans from the Great Mississippi Flood in 1927. Influential elites and investors in the Canal and the Port of New Orleans decided to blow up the levee at Caernarvon in St. Bernard Parish to release flood pressure and avoid flooding in New Orleans. They had full knowledge this act would devastate communities of fur trappers, fishermen, and shrimpers. “Folks remember this,” Dr. Lewis reflects with soft eyes. Over fading black and white footage of Louisianans drifting in small boats with water up to the roofs of homes and storefronts, Lewis tells us, “You don’t go and blow up a levee in somebody’s town, flood them out, and have that not leave an imprint on the collective memory.” He says a lasting “deep seated skepticism” developed about the powers managing water in the region around this time.

A collage of Interrotron shots, stock footage and images, and bold titles, the documentary finds its emotional power in the dynamic soundtrack. “Ninety-nine percent of the time stock footage doesn’t have sound,” Jackson explains, so they had to find, record, and build the soundtrack to pull the audience in. Whether punctuating haunting images with rolling thunder, using the sounds of shovels piling dirt and gravel along river banks to add authenticity, or adding moving musical score, the film’s sound brings the story to life. Jacksons says, “We wanted to bring drama to the images to have a sense of being there when the floods were happening or there when the levees were bursting.”

The historical and news footage draws an obvious parallel between Hurricanes Betsy (1965) and Katrina (2005). Both storms hit east of New Orleans and put pressure on the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) and Industrial Canal levees, which catastrophically failed and flooded the Lower Ninth, Arabi, and Chalmette. Within the film’s structure, it’s easy to see the direct cause and effect of the Lock project on the people living in these neighborhoods, how disaster after disaster might have been different if the Industrial Canal and MRGO had not been built. The film is embedded with the question, why double down on expanding the lock? “I’m not a scientist,” Jackson says. “I’m a filmmaker. I look at this story and how it keeps repeating itself and I think about that saying about insanity, doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.” From this view, it seems obvious the Lock Replacement Project ignores history and mainly benefits the shipping industry, once again, setting up this region to endure the consequences.

That apocalyptic footage of floods and devastation, that knowledge of the lives lost, displaced, and traumatized, that understanding of how the powerful continue to overlook this community, how they push projects through without fully calculating the social, cultural, and environmental impact on the other side of this canal leads me back to that epithet: The end of the world. I try to imagine actually standing on this levee after Katrina or Betsy, and I can’t do it. I’ve seen pictures, but I was not here. This basin, encompassing the Lower Ninth, Arabi, and Chalmette, is still at risk, and this risk amplifies by the year. Will this happen again and again? Shouldn’t the people of this place have the loudest voice in what happens to it?

The weight of historic mistakes and the battle ahead to literally keep the community above water is heavy. “Every New Orleanian should know about this. Every Southeastern Louisianan should know about this.” Ms. Jackson pauses and sighs, perhaps thinking about the magnitude of our environmental problems. “I think this is a national story, in some ways an international story because people should know about how we manage water down here and what the ramifications of it are. They haven’t done an environmental impact report on this [lock project] since 1989 and that was way before Katrina and before denying climate change and before the BP spill.” Educating, organizing, resisting, and voting one issue at a time seems to be the only route to effect change here.

Locked was created as part of the New Orleans Video Access Center’s Post Coastal project, a documentary series by local filmmakers that “explores life on the Louisiana coast after the crisis of land loss has been named.” More information about Post Coastal films, stories, communities, and creators,  can be found at postcoastal.org and novacvideo.org.

Antenna Gallery will host a screening of Locked on June 13th, 7PM including a Q&A with directors, Daneeta Loretta Jackson and Patrick Jackson (ElekTrikZoo.com). Special thank you to the Historic New Orleans Collection for providing access to archival images.