Early in the morning, Chris Brunet gets his niece and nephew up and ready and out the door of his home on the Isle de Jean Charles. He waves as they pile into an SUV with the other children from this community primarily populated by the descendants of blended Native American tribes, Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, who split off from the Trail of Tears and headed south to Louisiana. The SUV takes the schoolkids to an official bus stop for the Terrebonne Parish school system.
The one lane road leading from the mainland to the Isle de Jean Charles--itself a short barrier between saltwater and marshland--is too risky for the buses to traverse. The people of the Isle have become accustomed to producing their own access to anything government-related.
Chief Albert Naquin, the main representative for the people in both his community, says that the time as come to come out of hiding and fight for any protection or acknowledgment they can obtain from the federal government. Unfortunately, his ancestors never thought to keep the kind of perfect records that would make for easy rubber stamping of his tribe. Can't Stop the Water probably won't be used as official evidence either, but it is a valuable document that offers inhabitants of the Isle a different kind of access to people on the mainland.
The forty minute documentary, made over three years, began as an examination of the culture, but the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster provided extra impetus to spotlight this vulnerable stretch of land. The film touches on all its points quickly and effectively: the joy of the community when they eat and dance together, their industry, their life among the ruins of past chapters of their world. The film shows the determination of the old and the unassuming energy of the young. Aerial shots of the landscape are as telling as close-ups of the people.
Also present is how the environmental land loss of this coastal community is exacerbated by the channels dug decades ago for oil pipelines that aided erosion and make storm surge from any tropical storm or hurricane exponentially more severe.
Left on their own and excluded from the new levee protection system, the community's only chance for outside assistance is to become a federally recognized tribe, a challenge that takes Chief Naquin all the way to the United Nations.
It's interesting that the production itself was such a fragile thing, endangered by its own relationship with Isle de Jean Charles. Filmmakers Rebecca & Jason Ferris, along with producer Kathleen Ledet, became personally as well as artistically involved in the community. Their deference to the community members in taking ownership of their own story was apparent in a post-screening Q&A at the world premiere last night.
While the film only had one showing at the New Orleans Film Festival, it has a future life as an advocacy tool. Its multipurpose qualities are the result of its simple design. The ending of the film might seem unfinished, but that reflects the ongoing nature of this story.
The hard truth is that the Isle de Jean Charles will be submerged sooner rather than later, and the children of the community won't have the chance to make a choice between homeland and relocation, assisted or otherwise. One day the school bus won't make a stop for the assembled children of the Isle, but they will have this film to fuel their memories of what used to be.
-by Ryan Sparks