Charles Petzold

“Water” and “When the Levees Broke”

August 22, 2006
New York City

Deirdre and I had to drive into New York City yesterday to stay overnight and do some stuff. Little did we know that we'd spend the rest of the day seeing two politically charged and emotionally powerful films, one in a theater and another on TV. Oddly enough, both films involved water.

Water has been on my must-see list for months, and fortunately it was still playing at a theater in the East Village. Deepa Mehta's 2005 film takes place in 1938 in Varanasi, India. At the beginning of the movie, a newlywed named Chuyia suffers the loss of her husband. She becomes a widow, and under strict Hindu law will now be ostracized from society. Her head is shaved, she is dressed in a plain-white sari, and she is sent to a community of widows living on the banks of the Ganges, where she will ramain for the rest of her life. Chuyia is seven years old.

At first we view everything from Chuyia's perspective, but the film than veers off into another direction, and at first I thought Mehta had lost her way. I was wrong, and I was wrong again when I later thought the movie was drifting further from its focus. Deepa Mehta is a writer and director who knows exactly what she's doing. Water is certainly not a perfect movie — for one thing, the two romantic leads (played by Lisa Ray and John Abraham) look much too western and much too pretty — but it's gorgeously filmed and quite moving. And it took a lot of courage to make. Originally, Deepa Mehta tried to shoot the movie in Varanasi in 2000, but Hindu fundamentalists shut down the production. The movie resumed in Sri Lanka under a different title to avoid attracting attention.

Not much more than an hour after Deirdre and I staggered emotionally drained from the theater where we saw Water, we ordered Louisiana-style pizza from Two Boots and parked ourselves in front of the TV for the first half of the HBO documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, directed by Spike Lee, about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina.

I guess I was expecting a lot of news footage patched together with narration. Although there's certainly plenty of news footage in the documentary, what really makes When the Levees Broke work are the very many interviews with citizens of New Orleans who lived through the experience. Occasionally you'll hear Spike Lee's voice in the background, but there is no narration, and the power of the film comes from the pain and dignity of the people who had to deal first with a natural disaster, and then with sheer human incompetance.

The second part of When the Levees Broke is on HBO tonight, and I'm sure it will be frequently replayed and otherwise available. Based just on the first half, I think it representes some of Spike Lee's best work since his masterpiece, Do the Right Thing.