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LAFF | Telling Children’s Katrina Stories: “After the Storm” Director Hilla Medalia

LAFF | Telling Children's Katrina Stories: "After the Storm" Director Hilla Medalia

Hilla Medalia’s inspiring documentary, ostensibly about three New York theater vets who come to New Orleans to mount a benefit production of the Broadway musical “Once on this Island,” goes right to the eye of the storm. The production, which hauntingly mirrors the real-life events of the hurricane, is fraught with the raw emotions of children struggling to live in a broken-down city. Quickly disabusing any notion that New Orleans’ problems can be fixed with mere wood and nails, the film journeys into the personal family life of each teen cast member. The mesmerizing courage of these young performers speaks volumes about the role art can play in re-invigorating the heart and soul of New Orleans. [Description courtesy of LAFF]

“After the Storm”
Documentary Competition
Directed By: Hilla Medalia
Executive Producers: Ed Priddy, John Priddy
Producers: Hilla Medalia, James Lecesne
Screenwriters: Bob Eisenhardt, Hilla Medalia
Cinematographers: Ran Shetreet, William Sabourin O’Reilly
Editor: Bob Eisenhardt A.C.E.
Music: Stephen Flaherty
Featuring: Gerry McIntyre, James Lecesne, Randy Redd, Rayán Arnold, Annie Britton, Eric T. Calhoun, Jr., Griffin Collins III, Deshawn Dabney, Joel C. Dyson, Hannah Guillory, Grant Hunter, Taylor Marrs, Gabrielle Porter, Ashley Rose Richard, Jasmin Simmons, Desiree Stevenson, Jon Stevenson, April Stewart
U.S.A., 2009, 89 mins

[EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling International Spotlight and dramatic and documentary competition directors who have films screening at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival.]

What initially attracted you to filmmaking and how has that evolved since starting out?

The heart of this project is the importance of art and community in people’s lives and in the lives of kids in particular.

What was fascinating is that kids, especially adolescents, haven’t fully developed the ability to create a narrative about their own lives. And that ability is stifled in people who have survived trauma. By offering them the vehicle of the play, and watching them tell their own stories, we got to see them create a narrative.  As Ashley says, “This is what happened to me during Katrina, and this is how I got over it.”

The other thing I felt was that we all have heard about Katrina, but we don’t really know “how it is now.” I didn’t want to make a film about Katrina; I wanted to make a film about life in New Orleans now, through the eyes of the kids participating in the show. I wanted to show how theater helped them put their lives in order and allowed them to actually deal better with everything else in their lives.

How did the idea for your film come about and what excited you to undertake the project?

As fate would have it, I was introduced to James Lecesne, a writer and actor who was planning a trip to New Orleans one year after Hurricane Katrina. He wanted to see for himself what the situation was on the ground. He didn’t know where he was going and what he was going to do; the only thing he knew was that he wanted to help. He saw the connection between “Once On This Island” and post-Katrina New Orleans. 

I am not sure why, but I was immediately inspired to join him.  During this first trip, I realized I had to tell this story and when I met the kids, I was convinced even further… they are just amazing. 

How did you approach making the film, and were there any pivotal moments of learning during the life of the project for you?

From the beginning, I was very interested in the kids. I felt that by simply following their lives I could create a portrait of New Orleans that could span the past, present and more importantly, the future. At the same time, the dedication and the determination of the New York crew of artists that went down proved the healing power of art. Their work could serve as an inspiration not only for the film, but also for the kids.   

For me, it was the first time I was filming kids, so I had to learn how to get them to open up while being really gentle. What was really difficult was talking to them about some of the experiences they went through. It felt like it was closed in a box inside them and every time I tried to talk to them about it and open this box, they would be so emotional and cry. I had to learn to WATCH the kids and learned to trust that they would tell their stories through their affect, or through ACTION rather than through WORDS.  I learned that within the context of storytelling, each child would tell his or her own story in his or her own way, and not necessarily by explaining it or narrating it for the audience.  We get to SEE their story — which is the perfect use of film.  

What were some of the biggest challenges in making the film?

There were many challenging moments, just like in every other project I have worked on. One of those was when we discovered just how total the whole Mardi Gras thing was in New Orleans. We had no idea that the entire city would shut down.  Everything was closed, except — of course — Popeye’s [Chicken and Biscuits].

Another moment was when it started raining really hard. It seemed like the city was going crazy, and no one showed up or could move. It rained and rained and all the kids freaked. One of them, Jon, left the show; Joel, the lead, didn’t show up and Gerry, the director of the play, said he was leaving. And it all threatened to fall apart.  It’s in the film, so you can see it. 

Are there any interesting anecdotes from the shoot?

The first day of shooting during the auditions was very powerful.  After I was blown away by Rayan, who made us all cry, we met Grant, Eric and Hannah. I realized that each one of these kids was so badly traumatized and yet put a happy face on it all, making it seem as though, in Eric’s words, “Good things come out of bad experiences, too.” For me, that was a real eye-opener. Still, they were so divorced from their own pain and from the fact that they had survived something horrific. And yet, when given the opportunity, they broke down crying.

What other genres or stories would you like to explore?

My first film, “To Die in Jerusalem,” is a political documentary. “After The Storm” is also somewhat political, but really is more positive, inspiring and funny. I love documentaries, but I am also interested in narrative films and other genres, as long as the story is strong and I feel it is important that it be told. 

What other projects are you looking to do?

I am interested in a number of different areas. What connects all my projects is the social importance I see in the issues on which each of them focuses. I’m currently working on a new documentary, “Happy You Are Alive,” which focuses on PTSD and its treatment. I am developing other projects, including a documentary about women in the Middle East, and working on a feature film, but since it will be my first fiction project, I am taking my time.

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