Film Review: ‘Land of Opportunity’

by Alex Schafran

As the United States approaches one infamous anniversary next week, I have been thinking about another that just passed, albeit to less fanfare. Last August 29 marked the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, an event that, like 9/11, was far more than an attack on a city. Both events were as much about the nations in which they occurred as the cities that bore the brunt of their impact.

Unlike New York, where most of the physical damage has been removed and many of the remaining questions are about the lasting emotional trauma of survivors and the health impacts on rescue workers, the physical New Orleans still bears enormous scars from the events of six years ago. Surely this has much to do with the massive difference in physical scale between the two events, but it is also about the difference between New York and New Orleans, and between an event that was about America’s place in the world and one that exposed America’s deep divisions, historic inequalities and internal contradictions.

The “American question” is at the center of “Land of Opportunity,” Luisa Dantas’s beautiful film about post-Katrina recovery in New Orleans. A work of impressive diligence, it has emerged over the years in fits and starts, as the filmmakers screened parts of what remains a constantly evolving story, and it is now making the festival rounds in feature format. Focused primarily on the individual stories of a community organizer, two public housing activists, a displaced teenager, an undocumented Latino worker, a local resident/gardener and famed New Urbanist architect and planner Andres Duany, the successes and failures and pre-existing and reproduced injustices unfold in true storytelling fashion, accompanied by a haunting score by Derrick Hodge.

The film is careful to neither glorify nor denigrate New Orleans, in terms of its past, present or future. The grave inequality and limited opportunity in pre-Katrina New Orleans are shown through the eyes of Tr’vel Lyons, a young man displaced to Los Angeles, who finds academic success on the West Coast and ultimately a scholarship to UCLA. “Katrina,” he says, “you did something.” At the same time, the stories of local organizers Sharon and Kawana Jasper and Vanessa Gueringer highlight just how difficult it has been for those fighting for low-income people in New Orleans to preserve affordable housing, to have their neighborhoods rebuilt, even just to get the water turned back on.

The only sour note in the film is Duany, whose constant preening, obvious love for buildings more than people, and exasperation at New Orleans being a “third-world country” unable and unwilling to build what he designs, gives planners and architects a bad name — especially since his role in the film is meant to represent the professional urbanist class. Ours is a class certainly worth criticizing, especially in post-Katrina New Orleans, but in letting Duany play this role, the film avoids a more serious engagement with questions of planning expertise and design, themes that are hinted at throughout but never fleshed out.

Ultimately, with all due respect to Spike Lee’s endorsement, “Land of Opportunity” is not really about cities, and I mean that as a compliment. Urbanism for many of us is a way of engaging deeply with a place, identifying with it, loving it, and embracing its language, culture and society without the pernicious demagoguery of nationalism. We may feel ambivalent and conflicted about our nation, but we love our hometowns, cities and regions. “Land of Opportunity” reminds us — through its focus on individual stories and questions of opportunity and struggle, public housing and immigrant workers — that Katrina is about America as much as it is about New Orleans. This is one thing that both tragic anniversaries have in common.

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