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Getting Back to Abnormal: The changing face of New Orleans

Documentary Getting Back to Abnormal chronicles the

Documentary Getting Back to Abnormal chronicles the 2010 re-election campaign of  Councilperson-at-Large Stacy Head. 

There is a certain kind of ironic recognition in the title of the upcoming national PBS television documentary about the 2010 racially charged re-election campaign of Councilperson-at-Large Stacy Head. The next presentation by the award-winning POV, a series that features the best of today’s independent filmmakers, Getting Back to Abnormal, was an official selection of the 2013 SXSW Film Festival. It will be aired on Monday, July 14th at 9 PM on WYES and again at 10 PM on Tuesday, July 15th on LPB.

According to producers, Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, Peter Odabashian and Paul Stekler, the title reflects their views of a city where three of the four -- Alvarez, Kolker and Stekler -- had lived for more than a decade. Two of these self-described New Orleans fanatics, Alvarez and Kolker, then decamped first to Japan and after to New York to continue their filmmaking careers, while Stekler went on to Texas to become Chair of the Radio-Television Department at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Peter’s role is that of the skeptic,” Alvarez said of lifelong New Yorker Odabashian, the documentary’s Emmy-award-winning editor. “He would say a muffaletta is not that different from any other sandwich,” Alverez explains with a laugh. “We were the ones who said, 'Well, you obviously haven’t had a good one then'.”

Filmed in the waning days of the Ray Nagin administration, when, as Alvarez puts it, “everyone was pretty depressed”, Getting Back to Abnormal is the story of a white woman’s polarizing re-election campaign from district councilperson to councilperson-at-large, a citywide seat traditionally held by a black representative.

Looking back on that post-Katrina period Kolker, in a recent phone interview, gave a nod to Councilperson Stacy Head’s now four-year public journey. “She’s a competent politician, a competent leader,” he said, adding his observation that, “Maybe we got one who knows what she’s doing. Maybe she won the morning if not the whole day.”

Authenticity was the goal for Getting Back to Abnormal, the producers say, not just for a national audience but particularly for New Orleanians who, since Katrina, have been the subjects of any number of documentaries made about this quirky city. “I don’t want to sound pejorative,” Alvarez says. “But so many of them thought they understood New Orleans.”

Kolker agrees. “There has been a number of outsider filmmakers who thought now [post-Katrina] would be a good time to make a film. But there really is an actual culture here. There are also a lot of facsimiles. You have to understand what is real and what is a facsimile; you have to know what is unique.”

With its large cast of locals, the film includes comments from Barbara Lacen-Keller, described in the POV press release as “Head’s larger-than-life black aide with immense street cred,” as well as from the Ninth Ward’s Henry Irvin who, says the release, “puts it more colloquially: ‘In New Orleans we have some of the blackest white people and some of the whitest black people you ever gonna see.”.

Even David Simon, co-creator of HBO’s Treme had his say. “In many ways, New Orleans exists to be New Orleans in the imagination. The truth is it’s one of the most dysfunctional cities in America...but at the end of the day we will find a way to make you smile and dance.” Or, as civil rights lawyer Tracie Washington put it, “I don’t want a post-racial New Orleans. That would be -- I hate to say -- Minneapolis.”

So, concludes Alvarez about his favorite city, “I think New Orleans is getting back. It’s not simply about getting the streets paved. That seems to be happening. It’s back to the usual infighting, fussing. It’s no longer in the pit of depression. It’s getting back to abnormal.”

Getting Back to Abnormal will be live streamed for one month from its July 14 air date at www.pbs.org/pov.

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]