Last October, an exceptional event gathered David Simon and hundreds of students and fans in Paris for a master class at the Forum des Images in Les Halles. His work with HBO was explained throughout the hour and the last part included a reflexion on his last series: Treme. “Treme is a show about culture” Simon says, and what is at stake in the show is how the residents of New Orleans coped with the physical destruction of their environment and the administrative inabilities which derived from it. The characters seem to be driven by memory, which is the bridge between their life before and after Katrina but at the same time, the spirit of the city makes for the difficulty of keeping the memory.
The significance of the House in Treme
The main material consequence of the disaster was the destruction of the houses. The credits of the show is the only moment where images of Katrina are shown on screen, it uses archives images, photographs and videos. This multi-media depiction focuses on houses as well: realistic videos of the water flooding into houses are juxtaposed with desolated images of the aftermath, such as exterior walls with the X-spray paint mark on them. This mark will be seen all through the TV show and functions as a code, reminding that the reconstruction period is not over.
However, one of the most striking elements of the credits is the actors’ names appearing on panels, which remember abstract paintings but are in fact interior walls of houses, incrusted by the mold left by the water. The horizontal lines indicate the level reached by the water. This process in itself pictures the overwhelming intrusion of the disaster within the intimacy of the residents. The destroyed house, containing stories, memories and souvenirs, is thus a symbol of the violated private space. It is also metaphorical of how art can be created out of destruction. The house can be understood as the keeper of the family, its destruction causes family distortion. Most of New Orleans’ population was evacuated and people left their home, in a sort of exile. During this displacement, people from the same family lost tracks of one another. In the first season, we learn that Ladonna and her family lost track of Daymo, Ladonna’s brother. We gradually learn that Daymo was incarcerated not long before the storm and that he could not be evacuated, like the other inmates of the city. Neither the police nor the prison administration informed Ladonna of what happened to her brother, since the physical written traces have been destroyed during the storm. The turmoil of the storm induced a break in the family narrative and Ladonna hires Antoinette “Toni” Bernette (Melissa Leo), a civil rights lawyer, to investigate her brother’s case and together, they recreate the drowned narrative.
A Population forgotten by its institutions
These familial dramas are the effect of the government’s incapacity of solving the catastrophe rather than the aftermath of the natural disaster. Creighton Bernette is the one character who names the problem in the pilot when he is interviewed for the British television, he said in front of the camera:
“What hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast was a natural disaster… a hurricane, pure and simple. The flooding of New Orleans was a man-made catastrophe.”
The chore of the problem is that the levee system, failed since it was disregarded by the authorities despite of the warning of the habitants of New Orleans. It is thus suggested that the federal government is the prime responsible for the catastrophe since it knew that the flooding would happen, but did not do anything to limit the risks that it would cause. Nor in its response to Katrina was the Federal Government able to take care of the people of New Orleans: the FEMA which was supposed to bring an efficient response to the housing crisis is highly
Treme also stages how the private sector, and mostly insurance companies have forgotten the victims of the hurricane. The chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), a chef who maintains her restaurant with difficulty waits for the insurance money for her damaged house during the whole first season. Her financial situation is so difficult that she moves to New York, far from the troubles of Katrina. When characters do receive their insurance money, the amount is ridiculously small and do not permit to pay back all the reparation of their insured properties. Albert Lambreaux eventually receives a check from the insurance for his house, but it only amounts to $495, to cover the wind damage on the carport.
The Mardi Gras Indians: case study of Memory
Nevertheless, despite of the whole country’s effort to forget New Orleans, the attachment of the inhabitants for their city is not fading with the catastrophe. The mission of keeping the tradition is Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux’s role as a Mardi Gras Indian, chief of the Guardian of the Flames tribe. In the pilot, he returns to his former house and finally ends up living in the bar where the Indian practice took place before the storm: he is compelled to live up to his role of chief and urges the other Indians from his gang to come to the bar to rehearse the traditional songs and to sew their Mardi Gras costumes. The outstanding costumes made and worn by the Indians in the series recall the Native American imagery with the pearl motives sewn unto the leather and the colored feather headdress. The chants performed by the Indians are also reminiscent of a Native-American style with its exclusive use of percussion. Furthermore, the structures of those songs is based on the African-American rhetoric mode of the “call and response”, which stems from African tradition. Those visual and narrative elements show David Simon’s research on the subject in order to mirror the tradition realistically. To certify that these elements are accurate, searching “Guardians of the Flame” on YouTube opens on an amateur filmed sequence of a real parade which took place in 2011, among the Guardians of the Flame tribe.
The Mardi Gras Indians tradition, was born among African-Americans from Native-American descent, who did not have the right to parade during carnival, in order to express a mixed identity and history that was not recognized by the official Mardi Gras.The presence of Indians in Treme makes a statement about memory in Louisiana, that can be extended to the USA as a whole. Where as New Orleans claims its European heritage, the Native-American and African-American elements of the culture are often disregarded, where as they can be taken as the true “Americanness.”
The specificity of New Orleans
However the series highlights a problematic relationship between New Orleans and memory. Indeed the expression associated with New Orleans’s life style is a Cajun-French saying which states “Laissez le bon temps rouler”. The culture of New Orleans with its music, drinking and food, reaching its peak during the Mardi-Gras period makes little case of memory. A set of characters in Treme took advantage of the city’s forgetfulness. In the second season Annie Tee becomes very close to another street musician, Harley Watts (Steve Earle). This character is the embodiment of the “New Orleans adopted child”, all the songs he writes depict New Orleans’ culture and he is acquainted with all the city’s musicians. However, he is assassinated at the end of the second season and it is only when his sister comes to pick up his things that we learn about his family and previous life: although he pretended he was from Austin, Texas, he was actually from Bellingham, Washington.
The possibility of forgetting one’s old life and becoming someone else is the principle of the Carnival, known as “Mardi-Gras” and which is the tipping point of the year in Louisiana and more specifically in New Orleans, which are mostly catholic areas.
An interesting theorization of the symbolic of the carnival is developed by Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin in his book Rabelais and his World. Bakhtine studies the significance and symbolism of popular traditions through the prism of Rabelais’ work and focuses on the Carnival, which he defines as follow: “As opposed to the official feast, one might say that carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibition. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed.” Mardi-Gras consequently plays a cathartic function where the frustration of the New Orleanians can be expressed and evacuated for a few days, so that the hierarchic order can be recreated afterwards. However, the chronological structure of Treme advocates a different perspective: a season represents a year, where the Carnival is developed in one central episode, and after Mardi-Gras, life goes on and the characters of the series keep on living and struggling. It might induce that Mardi Gras, although it is a tradition which has to be maintained as lively and faithfully as possible, since it embodies the specificity of New Orleans, is not a finality and that the struggle for preservation of the culture is taking place elsewhere, in a long-term effort.