A powerfully moving large format film unlike any other, Hurricane on the Bayou carries audiences behind today’s news headlines on a journey deep into the soul-stirring heart of Louisiana – before, during and after the unprecedented devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Unfolding against the poignant backdrop of the most costly natural disaster in America’s history, MacGillivray Freeman’s IMAX® cameras follow a group of four musicians, both legendary and rising, as they explore the electrifying culture of New Orleans: speed through the beautiful, alligator-filled bayous on airboats; recount their heart-wrenching, personal stories of Katrina; and most of all, bring the focus to the rapidly disappearing wetlands that are New Orleans’ first line of defense against deadly storms. Vanishing at an astonishing rate of one acre every 38 minutes according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the wealth, cultural vitality and very future of New Orleans depend on the preservation of these wetlands.
Narrated by Academy Award®-winning actress Meryl Streep and driven by a rousing Jazz, Blues and Gospel-fueled soundtrack,Hurricane on the Bayou is both a haunting document of a storm’s human effects and a compelling call to restore Louisiana’s wetlands, rebuild New Orleans, and honor the place where America’s most vibrant home-grown culture was born.
In early 2005, two-time Academy Award®-nominated producer/director Greg MacGillivray began shooting Hurricane on the Bayou as a story he hoped would sound the alarm on the destruction of Louisiana’s vital wetlands and how a hypothetical hurricane could lead to a massive flood in New Orleans. Yet he could never have predicted that the very nightmare he was exploring on film was about to become real life – and that New Orleans would fall victim to a history-changing catastrophe in the middle of the film’s production. Now, just as the MacGillivray Freeman filmmaking team had done in the wake of tragedy while filming its award-winning film Everest, they switched gears while in motion, broadening Hurricane on the Bayou to provide an eye-opening visual panorama of all that Katrina had wrought – and creating a larger-than-life look at what the nation would stand to lose without the rollicking music, rich culture and astonishing natural beauty of New Orleans and its surrounding areas.
“We set out originally to tell the story of a future, hypothetical hurricane and how the rapid erosion of the wetlands left New Orleans more vulnerable to flooding,” says Greg MacGillivray, “but when Katrina struck in the middle of doing that, everything changed. We had to completely rethink the film, which evolved into a much broader and more deeply emotional story than we ever imagined. We realized we had a unique ability to get dramatic IMAX footage of how Katrina impacted New Orleans that would be unlike any other footage that has been seen -- and to tell this story in a way that captures the humanity of it, the essential role of the wetlands environment and the undeniable, musical magic of the city all at once.”
Adds writer and co-director Glen Pitre, who was raised in the bayous of Louisiana and continues to make his home in New Orleans: “For me, this was always a very, very personal film. I grew up in the wetland areas of Louisiana and I’ve watched them rapidly disappear before my very eyes. I have grandparents’ graves I can’t visit because they’re underwater now. Prairies where I played as a child are gone. So long before Katrina, I felt this was something that the world needed to know about. The wetlands are like the Kevlar vest for Louisiana -- and last summer, we found out what happens when you don’t have that vest.”
MacGillivray continues: “When Katrina hit, we were no longer filming what might happen, we were suddenly more like news reporters filming what did happen, but with all the tremendous sense of scale that IMAX format photography brings with it. It was a very intense and unforgettable time. You don’t expect to see a whole city uprooted. It’s the first time that’s ever happened in America, and it made making this film even more passionate and essential.”
In Hurricane on the Bayou, America’s leading lady of the screen, Meryl Streep, introduces the audience to four charismatic New Orleans musicians: the legendary singer, songwriter, pianist, producer and Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee Allen Toussaint; the impassioned Cajun Blues guitarist and wetlands activist Tab Benoit; the 14-year-old fiddling prodigy and rising teen sensation Amanda Shaw; and the man who discovered Amanda and helped produce her first album, the high-energy Zydeco accordion master Chubby Carrier. Each has an incredible story to tell about their love for Louisiana and their loss during Katrina.
The film begins in the bayou itself, as a family of alligators frolic in the water to the tune of the Cajun classic “Iko Iko.” The story then sets off on an historical exploration of how New Orleans rose up hundreds of years ago out of an untamed swampland – and went on to became celebrated around the world as “The Big Easy,” a place where a feeling of joyful freedom permeated the music, the food and the city’s inimitable talent for turning “good times” into an art form. Here, a spicy gumbo of African, Native American, Cajun, Creole and Southern influences forged a completely unique culture. Louisiana’s coastal location (the state contains 40% of all the coastal wetlands in the continental U.S. according to the National Wetlands Research Center) was both a boon and a bane to the city. New Orleans evolved into the busiest port in the U.S., but after engineers diverted the Mississippi River, depleting the wetlands, the city became increasingly vulnerable to the killer winds and rising waters of seasonal hurricanes.
Today, the situation grows more and more dangerous as every year Louisiana loses enough land to make up the island of Manhattan. Setting out for the mystery-tinged bayous with Tab Benoit and Amanda Shaw, Hurricane on the Bayou reveals how in the last 50 years, the natural coastal buffer that once sheltered New Orleans from severe storms has drastically deteriorated, endangering many unique animal and plant species and leaving the city wide open to Mother Nature’s ferocious forces. Spectacular flights over the Gulf of Mexico reveal the shocking reality that every half an hour, Louisiana loses a section of wetlands the size of a football field. Meanwhile, a side-trip into the vibrant swamplands probes how the bayou provides a fragile home to a family of alligators with newborn babies. Here, Tab Benoit explains that hope for New Orleans’ future will lie in concerted efforts to not only preserve but restore these wetlands by redirecting the Mississippi River’s silt and re-planting vital foliage.
Ultimately, the story builds to the monster storm that was Katrina and the crisis it brought to New Orleans, causing families to be separated, homes to be lost and one hundred square miles of wetlands and marshes to be destroyed by saltwater (including damaged caused by Hurricane Rita). Visceral, state-of-the-art CGI effects created by Hollywood specialists Sassoon Film Design recreates the fury of the storm, when fierce winds tore off the roof of the Superdome. Then, haunting, never-before-seen 70mm footage of the storm’s aftermath provides a shocking reminder of just how vast the storm’s devastation really was. Finally, returning to New Orleans in the bittersweet 2006 Mardi Gras season, the film reveals a city in the first throes of recovery – and reunites Allen Toussaint, Amanda Shaw, Chubby Carrier and Marva Wright for a passionate performance of a resonant modern hymn (written by the film’s composer Steve Wood) in the oldest Cathedral in North America, New Orleans’ elegant St. Louis Cathedral.
Hurricane on the Bayou is not just the moving story of how four remarkable musicians survived Katrina and are facing the future, nor it is just the story of how the destruction of the wetlands is wreaking devastation for both humans and animals,” Greg MacGillivray summarizes. “I think it is really about the tremendous value of New Orleans and Louisiana to our nation. I hope we reveal what a treasure this city is – a wild swampland that turned into a fantastic center for music, food and the enjoyment of life itself. To lose New Orleans would be an unthinkable tragedy.”
Hurricane on the Bayou is produced and distributed by MacGillivray Freeman Films and executive produced by Audubon Nature Institute with major funding from the State of Louisiana. Fueled by Louisiana’s astonishing array of musical talent, the film’s release will be accompanied by a soundtrack featuring such artists as Aaron Neville, Dr. John, Fats Domino, Mavis Staples, The Rebirth Brass Band and Zydeco Force. Proceeds from the CD will go to support Audubon Nature Institute’s programs to teach people of all ages about the importance of saving Louisiana’s vanishing wetlands.