Mourning the Bayou | Movie Feature | Chicago Reader

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Mourning the Bayou

A long-term documentary project on the Cajuns' disappearing homeland gains a whole new dimension with the BP oil disaster.

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"Her sensibility reminds us of the power of the present tense, of being in touch with your emotions in a more sophisticated way," Hardin says. "The primary emotion that resists change is fear. 'I don't want things to be different.' If you stop there, you can go into denial and angry outbursts. If you keep tuned into your emotions," you can be more open to new possibilities and potential solutions.

"I keep urging her to write about the oil spill," Hardin says. "But you can't put a quarter in and something pops out."

Veins in the Gulf started as a side project for Coffman and Hardin, but calamity turned it into an epic undertaking. Coffman came to Chicago in 2004, as cofounder of Loyola's Center for Global Media and Documentary Studies. Soon after moving here, she was struck by a motorcycle while riding her bike. She was hospitalized for a month with head trauma and some memory loss. While she was incapacitated, another Nader documentary, An Unreasonable Man, "zoomed ahead of us," Hardin says, and they set aside their own Nader film.

"Almost as part of my recovery, we kept going back on this paddle trip" down the bayou, Coffman says. "The story kept expanding. Over time you see how these characters' lives change, how they all keep connected to their community and keep fighting for it."

In the 1930s the federal government began building levees to protect coastal regions from the kind of devastation wreaked by the Great Flood of 1927. An unintended consequence of the levees is that sediment from the Mississippi now flows directly into the gulf instead of passing through the wetlands, where it used to replace land lost to erosion.

Energy companies have contributed to the land loss as well, cutting canals through the marshes to extract oil and gas. And rising sea levels due to global warming have done their part. In all, 1,900 square miles of Louisiana wetlands have disappeared since 1930; another 25 square miles is vanishing every year.

In 2005 Katrina hit, and Coffman and Hardin decided to make the bayou film their primary project. The region was getting international attention, but most of the coverage overlooked the key role that wetland loss plays in intensifying storms' impact. "A mile of marsh knocks down a storm surge by a foot," Hardin says.

"Without [the wetlands], New Orleans and other areas cannot protect themselves," Coffman says. "No levee is strong enough to withstand the 20 feet of storm surge that a hurricane can bring in. This is part of the reason [Katrina] was so damaging.

The wetlands could also play a key role in dealing with the oil spill. "The wetlands are the kidneys of the land," Hardin says. "They have so much oil-eating bacteria. They break down everything. They take toxins that come into the water column and they remove them." And if more wetlands were left, they could filter more of the oil from the water system."

What'll happen now is anyone's guess. "Things had gotten so desperate in terms of coastal restoration that the oil industry was starting to step up to the table with environmentalists and politicians," says Coffman. "They want to keep the port alive and keep the infrastructure there. But now with this spill, the concern is that coastal restoration will get sidelined again."

The Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Agency of the Army Corps of Engineers estimates the cost of restoring and protecting the coast somewhere between 70 and 139 billion dollars.

Coffman and Hardin are screening footage of their film this weekend, to raise funds to complete it. They plan to show the finished product at a conference in September at the University of Pennsylvania in Scranton and then at the University of Houston, where Serpas now teaches. They'll make one more trip to the gulf this summer to wrap up filming. By then they hope to find the people of the bayou moving beyond crisis mode and focusing on recovery.

"We came to see we're doing something very similar to the Bosnia film," Coffman says, "looking at how a community is responding, organizing themselves to heal after these disasters and crises, seeing how they're putting it back together again."   

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