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Land of Opportunity: A multimedia look at post-Katrina rebuilding

Land of Opportunity's Luisa Dantas

Land of Opportunity's Luisa Dantas

It’s a movie. A web site. A virtual salon; a public forum. It’s multilayered, tells personal stories and hopes to start conversations.

There’s nothing quite like “Land of Opportunity” out there.

“It’s daunting,” says Luisa Dantas of the massive project she’s worked on for the past eight years. “I’ve never done anything of this nature before. A film is finite, tangible. This is more unstable.”

It began with Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, Dantas, A Brazilian/New York-reared filmmaker fresh from accolades as co-producer for “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,’’ was asked by ACORN, one of that film’s partners, to record the organization’s house-gutting efforts in New Orleans. She quickly realized there was a larger story she wanted to tell.

“In that first six months, between December ’05 and April ’06, I filmed a dozen stories, all with different perspectives. But all of them shed light on the bigger issue: How do you rebuild a city?”

She conceived a project built patchwork style of short, modular videos focusing on people impacted by the storm. Her vision? To present a series of interconnected perspectives to record what was happening, as it happened, in order to better understand how any urban community recovers from a disaster the size of Katrina.

“So much was unfolding on the ground. This idea of sitting on footage didn’t seem an option. I thought, people should see this now. I started with the idea that I was going into it to see what could be learned from it.”

She chose the name Land of Opportunity, she says, not only to play on the idea of the American dream and immigration, but also because of the attitude and spirit of the people she interviewed after the storm.

“The people we followed all were seeking opportunity post-Katrina,” Dantas explains. “That manifested itself in so many ways, Even the folks who lost everything got involved.”

She began releasing short videos of people she had interviewed, talking about issues such as immigration or housing. Some were included in Prospect 1; others went viral on the Internet.

Land of Opportunity next emerged as a 90-minute documentary movie that made is debut in Europe on the fifth anniversary of Katrina. It weaves together stories of eight people: two undocumented Brazilian workers in town to work on storm recovery, two public housing residents, a Gentilly homeowner, an urban planner, a community organizer in the Lower 9th Ward, a 12-year-old displaced to Los Angeles after Katrina.

But the film was merely the cornerstone of a larger sociological examination of Katrina evolution.

“I was looking for ways to leverage the archive beyond a feature film,” Dantas explains. So in early 2012, she began building in earnest a digital Land of Opportunity. “"an online platform gives access to a lot of perspectives.”

For the digital project, however, Dantas wanted to move away from the linear storytelling of the film format and incorporate a more fluid environment, where voices could be overlaid atop one another and the audience could step into the discussion.

“The tools for that didn’t exist. I wanted to unite the elements in one seamless environment, in order to start complex conversations. The Internet is so often about superficiality – you spend 2 seconds here or there. I knew that this was not about a million eyeballs, but about diving much deeper into the subject.”

The breakthrough came with Mozilla Popcorn, software that adds interactivity and context to online video.

“That’s when the light bulb went off,” Dantas says with a laugh. “It allows for annotative video.”

The beta version of LandofOpportunity launched in November. Built on an open source platform, its multimedia storytelling is enhanced with curated content such as research, data and calls to action from more than a dozen site partners, from housing and good government groups to media organizations. Participants who want to contribute their own multi-layered stories or knowledge can contact the LandofOpportunity team to become partners .

LandofOpportunity's rich media video (RMV) 'How Does One Begin?'

Ultimately, the online community’s growth will be dictated by how people use it. “It’s much more the idea of users telling you how to use your web project and be open to that.”

Whether LandofOpportunity promotes dialogue, action items, policy decisions or simply education, Dantas hopes that it will probe comprehensively and seriously into the discussion about how to rebuild communities after disaster. To that end, UNO is experimenting with using LandofOpportunity as a platform for classes in urban planning. Dantas also hopes that the complex programming used to create her site can be repurposed for other people’s projects.

Now Dantas has to sit back and watch her newborn crawl, in unmonitored directions. Resources from a Ford Foundation grant used to fun the platform are nearly exhausted, and she is now researching ways to keep the site sustainable and relevant. She wants to tend to current conversational threads, and weave new ones.

She can also take a deep breath and enjoy a city that has become, surprisingly, home. Her six years in a Treme apartment have been the longest she has lived in one place, and she plans to stay.

“Because I am Brazilian, New Orleans felt familiar to me from day one,” she says. “It has to do with the fact that, in both places, relationships are the most fundamental part of the culture. It’s the only way to get things done. The resilience of the city was apparent from the beginning.

“When I look at new people coming to the city and see the New Orleans they are seeing, and think back to eight years ago, it’s mind-boggling.”

Here are a few of the interactive videos on the new LandofOpportunity interactive platform; register and log on to add your comments in a multi-layered fashion to each:

  • Your Money Your City You Decide: Made with NOCOG as part of its campaign to bring participatory budgeting to NOLA
  • Right to Return? About the debate over shrinking the city's footprint post-K and how the concept was debated by planners, residents, developers and others
  • Sewing Home: About a Mardi Gras Indian second chief who was displaced to Houston
  • Middle Passage: About local artist/activist Marcus Akinlana

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]