After watching the masses of people stranded at the Convention Center and Superdome in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama commented that America was watching history in fast forward; that those left with no means to evacuate prior or escape after the storm were exposed as being the most vulnerable in a society that had slowly withdrawn support and assistance for the poor, elderly and infirm.
In Left Behind, a new documentary film produced by Vince Morelli and Jason Berry set to screen at Canal Place Cinema Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 5-6, the filmmakers draw a direct link between the looting, violence and breakdown of order in the city to one of the city's failing institutions: public schools.
Morelli and Berry started the project in 2004, talking to high school students and probing the problems facing the school system. Katrina brackets the 90-minute film because of the way it changes the context of the documentary, but Morelli sees the film as relevant to the city as it rebuilds.
"The important thing to say is that the policies and conditions that created these schools -- the poverty, the family structures, the race-class divide -- need to be examined," he says.
Left Behind takes a very hard look at the pre-Katrina Orleans Parish school system from the school board's deliberations over whether to hire Anthony Amato or Andre Hornsby for school superintendent, to Amato's resignation, and through the hurricane. While the film covers the headline-making news of contract kickbacks, corruption and school violence, the story is most compellingly told through the eyes of the students the schools are meant to serve. After Morelli and Berry were denied permission to film inside the schools, they gave students cameras to document their own experiences.
The film introduces Mario, a senior at John McDonogh, who is struggling to pass the LEAP test. He's failed the test four times, and in the course of his senior year, Mario's life is disrupted when he is shot outside his home, leaving him with five bullet wounds and one bullet that cannot be extracted. Months later he is robbed at gunpoint while working in a fast-food chain and then fired from the restaurant. His biological mother is largely absent from his life and he lives with his stepmother. A younger brother has been arrested on first-degree murder charges.
In the course of many interviews, Mario discusses what options are open to him. He believes an athletic scholarship is out of reach, and unless he can pass the LEAP test, he worries that the U.S. Marine Corps won't take him either. He and fellow students discuss a shortage of books in their classrooms and other fundamental obstacles in their schools. Talking about his next shot at the LEAP, Mario offers, "I just have to have confidence."
Viewers also are introduced to Jonathan and Joshua Short, brothers and seniors at Joseph Cohen High School. For three years, the two supported themselves and shared an apartment while their parents were absent from their lives.
"In New Orleans, that's really very common," says Morelli, who has known the brothers for years and plays basketball with Joshua every Saturday. Many of the older students Morelli met and interviewed lived without one or both parents. A legal advocate for juveniles in Orleans Parish who was interviewed in the film says that even before Katrina, she was unable to locate a legal guardian for 90 percent of the teenagers she meets in prison.
Getting to know students in the system spurred Morelli to take on the project. With no prior experience, he got a video camera and taught himself the film-production program Final Cut Pro and started editing archived footage of school board meetings and film shot by himself and the students.
Morelli moved to New Orleans from California eight years ago to teach sports medicine at Kenner Regional Hospital. He met Mario and the Short brothers through a friend a couple of years later and eventually teamed up with Jason Berry to make a film about the challenges facing public school students like them.
"I saw the most hope in the eyes of the kids," Morelli says. "As kids, they have hope as a consequence of their physiologic state. You feel a responsibility to not let that hope fade."
The film takes an unflinching look at the obstacles that take attention away from the schools' mission of educating. Two of the biggest concerns addressed are violence and corruption in the school system.
During Amato's tenure, the $566 million school budget and the issue of control over awarding contracts came to the forefront. The board held the power to approve all contracts, and Amato struggled to gain control. Outside audits showed a complete failure of accounting practices, exposing huge holes in the budget and unaccounted for spending. The FBI began investigations into fraud and Amato invited the agency to set up an office within the school's administration buildings. State legislation was introduced to shift control over funding to the superintendent, but Amato resigned before it passed.
While those battles raged at school board meetings, in Baton Rouge and allegedly behind closed doors in violation of the state's sunshine laws prohibiting private meetings of school board members, the schools experienced their own turf wars. Gun battles, shootings and homicides at several schools made headlines in local papers. Carver Junior/Senior High School, serving the Desire public housing project, logged five to 10 violent incidents per day. Mario and other students talk about surviving in a system overrun with fear and the threat of violence.
In the end, the film turns to broader issues of how poverty affects schools and how schools address that issue. Rapper Ice T and MIT linguist and social activist Noam Chomsky sound eerily similar in talking about how children are affected by poverty and abandoned by society. Their comments could apply to many American cities.
Due to Katrina, the students in Left Behind do get a chance to experience schools elsewhere. Joshua is amazed at the campus he is evacuated to in Eugene, Ore. When he talks about returning to New Orleans, he laughs that he can't dress like the kids in Oregon or he'll have to be ready to fight. Though he's joking about his Oregon schoolmates' clothes, it's disconcerting that he barely winces at the confrontational response he expects from his peers back home.
After interviewing kids, teachers, administrators, most members of the last two school boards and politicians, Morelli looks at the broader picture of the kids' lives beyond school walls.
"The injustice is how can adults treat kids so poorly," he says. "Everyone involved -- that we talked to -- is basically a good person. So how did we get here. How did we create an environment where good people can't function."
Left Behind will be screened at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 5-6. A Q&A with producers and film participants follows. Suggested donation is $10. For more information about the film visit www.neworleansleftbehind.com.