In Spike Lee's documentary miniseries/film When the Levees Broke, musician Wynton Marsalis states that this is a great time in history because it's a time for us to notice what we're doing wrong and then fix things. I would argue that this doesn't separate our time from any other in the millennia since man started documenting his history. We have so rarely, or so slowly learned from the mistakes of our past, but it is at least a hopeful statement at the end of an otherwise morose four hours.
I think this is a great time in history because non-fiction cinema allows for much easier and more accessible ways of communicating these wrongs of humanity through its documentation of historical events. And the proof is in the multitude of films released over the past decade dealing with disasters, many of which, such as the Hurricane Katrina tragedy, were at least partially preventable.
But do documentaries really work for this purpose? And if not, what's the point of disaster docs? To entertain the destructoporn fetishists who love fictional disaster movies? I hope not. To serve racist moviegoers ridden by white guilt who align themselves with the films' rescuer figures in the same way they relate to white saviors in fiction films like Avatar and Dances with Wolves? I've read a paper that suggests the latter, at least in docs about Katrina, and I almost believe it when I consider the potential films we'll see about last week's earthquake in Haiti.
And you know there will be plenty of films about that enormous disaster. It was certainly no surprise for me to learn after only a few days, courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter, that at least one documentary crew is already busy filming the relief effort down there.