GFF blog: Simpsons and Spinal Tap star Harry Shearer on documentary The Big Uneasy
The film examines the extent to which human error exacerbated the effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans
‘I’ve just come from Dallas, where, by sheer good luck, the film was screening at the same theatre where Lee Harvey Oswald was captured. I got to sit in his seat. They don’t have a plaque on it or anything, but, you know, my ass is part of history now.’ Despite the serious nature of his new documentary The Big Uneasy (an examination of the human error that contributed to the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Katrina), Harry Shearer is still happy to crack a joke now and then. Indeed, the veteran comedy star was aware of this when making the film. ‘I never wanted anything of informational value coming out of my mouth, because then it’s like, "Where does this guy from The Simpsons and Spinal Tap get off talking about engineering?"'
The film focuses on three main figures who took part in the post-Katrina investigations: Robert Bea, an engineering professor from California; Ivor von Heerden of the Hurricane Centre, who was once associated with Louisiana State University; and Maria Gorzino, a whistleblower from the Army Corps of Engineers, the group tasked with implementing the faulty safety measures that failed when Katrina hit. ‘Robert and Ivor both decided, independently of each other and the government, to conduct their own investigations post-Katrina. They did not believe the official explanation for what had happened, and started forming their own teams to come to the city, start poking around, before all the debris had been cleared and all the evidence removed. Maria worked for the agency that built the system that collapsed so catastrophically, and that same agency has been tasked, unfortunately, with building the new system. She has very disturbing things to say about that new, “improved” system.’
As well as an America-wide screening of the film last year, on the fifth anniversary of the Katrina, the film has toured across the US, including Dallas, St Louis and – naturally – New Orleans. Shearer was taken aback at the level of reaction the film received in his hometown. ‘It was shocking to me, because I thought that people in New Orleans had absorbed all this material. They had never seen the whistleblower before, but the rest of the material, I thought they’d seen. And a friend of mine who runs the leading serious radio chat show in town, I saw him in the theatre while the film was playing, and he could not sit down. It was like steam was coming out of his ears. And he comes up to me afterwards and says, “You’re gonna be on the show tomorrow for the whole three hours, and we’re gonna get everybody in town to see this movie.” And for weeks, it just wouldn’t leave town. It was playing at three theatres, and they couldn’t get it to stop because people just kept coming to see it.’
I mention that I’ve talked to an audience member, who described herself as enraged by the ‘negligence, rather than incompetence’ of the people involved. Shearer agrees. ‘Well, a federal judge, who was in the film, who was the judge in the only legal case to come out of this, actually uses the words “criminal negligence.” “Incompetence” makes it seem almost like something Laurel & Hardy did. This is a little worse than that.’ Was that the purpose of the film then? To get people angry? ‘I want Americans to be angered by it, sure. When they learn that this was not a natural disaster; that their tax money paid for the near-destruction of a great American city, and that it’s happening again, they should be angry. I wasn’t trying to do it in a rabble-rousing way – it’s not, “These guys are the bad guys” or, “Those guys are the bad guys” – it’s a very scrupulously, rigorously non-partisan political film, because frankly, both the Republicans and the Democrats are knee-deep in this shit. The good guys are the ones that are on film, talking about what they found out.”
As a resident of the city, Shearer saw it as his duty to make the film. ‘If you know this stuff and you don’t tell people, you know – that’s not good. I live in New Orleans. I adore the place. It’s like, when you see your girlfriend mugged, how do you respond?’ He pauses, then adds, ‘Well, you don’t make a documentary about it, obviously, but something like that.’