Harry Shearer’s ‘The Big Uneasy’

The Big Uneasy

Natural disasters have a way of repeating themselves. Such is the case with the tsunami in Japan, which occurred while director Harry Shearer was in D.C. promoting his documentary "The Big Uneasy," which details the reasons why New Orleans flooded and why it could happen again.

He wants you to know, though, that Hurricane Katrina didn’t cause the real disaster; people did. The culprit? Faulty engineering, lack of accountability, flawed science and ignorance, not to mention the coverup.

The movie follows three people: two leaders of scientific investigation teams and one whistleblower.

Niteside caught up with Shearer to talk about the making of the movie and in particular the movie's heart-stopping computer imagery, designed to make you feel that if you don't get away from the screen ASAP, you too could be swept away.  

“I knew that virtually every other documentary or news story about the flooding of New Orleans had focused on the emotional impact, the stories of the victims," Shearer said. "It was achingly obvious that no one in the national media cared to explain to viewers sated with images of suffering people why those people had been made to suffer.” 

After seeing President Obama come to New Orleans and call the flooding a natural disaster, Shearer decided that a feature-length documentary -- "using all the tools of moviemaking" -- would help people understand what Shearer saw as the truth of the situation.

"...I knew that vivid computer graphics was one of the most crucial," he said. "Most people, including Congresspeople who came down for a 'disaster tour,' ended up saying 'I had no idea' about the geographical scope of the catastrophe."

Shearer said he knew from the beginning that he wanted to start the film by giving people an understanding of how widespread the flooding was, and how rapidly it happened.  "I thought that would give viewers a strong emotional impact that would carry them through the dense informational material to follow,” he said.

We were sad and astonished at the treatment of Louisiane State University Prof. Ivor van Heerden, who lost his livelihood over his tenacious effort to repeal a bureaucracy that didn’t work. Van Heerden says he was fired in retaliation for criticizing the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Dr. van Heerden didn't have tenure," Shearer said. "That made him ineligible for the protections we normally associated with academic freedom. He does have a lawyer who handles whistleblower cases [who is] working for him now as he proceeds with his lawsuit against the university." Van Heerden has taken a consulting job in the meantime to support his family afloat.

So has anyone had gone to jail for their malfeasance? “No one has gone to jail; no one has even been docked a month's pay for their role in this disaster, or for what the federal judge in the MRGO [Mississippi River Gulf Outlet] lawsuit ruled was 'criminal negligence,' Shearer said.

"The president returned to New Orleans on the fifth anniversary of the flood and used the same language in referring to the 'natural disaster.' Talk about audacity,” Shearer added.

And lastly, getting back to Japan, we asked Shearer if he thought the government would head the warning from Japan.  “Just as a skeptically minded citizen, I think we are about to hear a million supposed reasons why Japan is not like us, and why there are no real lessons for us to learn from the Japanese disaster," he said. "I hope I'm wrong."

As to why we as Americans feel shielded from such tragedies, he reminds us that “we have a history of feeling nice and safe between our two oceans. The notion of American exceptionalism makes us feel we're different (even though we've had civil war, slavery and genocide -- how original!), and leads us to believe, as in our habit of rejecting offers by the Dutch to help with our water issues in New Orleans, that we have nothing to learn from those other, lesser nations. It's a cute way to be.”

Watch the trailer here.

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