Josh Grossberg: On New Orleans

a 2007 interview with the director of A Bridge Life

Josh Grossberg’s documentary A Bridge Life: Finding Our Way Home From Katrina chronicles the actions of a man named Dan Sheffer as he travels to Houston in the wake of the 2005 hurricane in the United States. In the midst of the national disaster, Sheffer’s goal is to get as many evacuees as possible out of the Houston Astrodome, a place where more than 30,000 survivors were sent after being evacuated from New Orleans. Dan’s idea is to gather as many people as he can afford to bring back to Florida with him, take them away from the bedlam of the Astrodome, and give them the money and resources they need to restart. As the movie progresses and the men and women start their new lives, it soon becomes clear that not everyone Dan has taken back with him is the same person that he or she first seemed. Things get complicated as the evacuees face various obstacles in trying to start over and rebuild their lives. Dan is forced to face the realization that despite all his good intentions, perhaps not everyone can be saved, and perhaps the final outcome has never been in his control in any case. The film is moving and at times heartbreaking, but at the center of „A Bridge Life“ is the idea that what binds us together is ultimately our need for communion and community, and because of that shared need, when life appears to be at its worst, a simple act of compassion always has the power to make things right again.

Pulse: How did you end up at the Houston Astrodome during the hurricane? Did you go there with the intent to make this film?

Josh Grossberg: I watched the aftermath of Katrina on TV like everyone else in America and I felt a sense of helplessness. Several days had gone by since the storm hit New Orleans and the Gulf and little was being done to help those caught in its wake, save the extraordinary efforts of the US Coast Guard in rescuing hundreds trapped on rooftops from the flood. I had to do something and saw an email sent out by the Hillel Jewish group at NYU where I was attending grad school at the time. It was an announcement that was seeking volunteers to travel to the Houston Astrodome where thousands of Katrina survivors were being bussed to by authorities after their rescue. Organizers weren‘t sure exactly what the volunteers would be doing. All we knew was that Edgar M. Bronfman, former CEO of Seagrams Ltd and onetime chairman of MGM Studios, had agreed to sponsor the trip and pay for flights down there to lend a hand. I went to the Hillel meeting and put my name in as interested in joining them. Not three hours after attending, I get a call from one of the organizers asking me if I wanted to go to Houston to volunteer. I said yes and the next thing I knew, I was joining the other nine volunteers and two administrators on a flight down to Texas. Whether fulfilling such simple tasks as handing out water bottles or arranging clothing donations or just comforting the victims, jobs were plentiful once we got to the Astrodome. Many of the people there looked like they were suffering from post-traumatic stress. A majority of them had very little in the way of belongings, a great number only the clothes on their back. Some were wearing t-shirts donated to them, the only clothes they had after being plucked from the flood and taken to communal showers. One woman I distinctly remember had on a Shell t-shirt. She told me she escaped from the flood just barely but as she was swimming through the muck a plank of wood hit her square in the teeth, knocking out the center ones. She was a cab driver with a thick Cajun accent. And she was just dying to tell anyone who would listen her story of survival.

I’d brought along my digital video camera just in case and when many evacuees saw it, they would come up to me wanting to share what they had just went through. So in answer to your question, no, I didn’t come there with the intent to make this film. But I quickly realized that instead of handing out water bottles, perhaps it was my purpose while I was there to record as much of their stories as possible, not only for posterity‘s sake but also because it was very therapeutic for survivors to discuss their ordeal. It made them feel like someone was listening, and that meant almost as much as anything at the time. After all of this, after interviewing one traumatized person after another, I knew I had an obligation to do something to make sure these peoples‘ voices would be heard, even if it took me several years to do so. And that’s what became this film.

One man you met there, Dan Sheffer, the man you call the Good Samaritan, becomes the center of your film. Why do you think Dan was on such a mission to save these people?

While most people felt satisfied sending a donation to the Red Cross or other relief organizations, Dan wasn‘t sure such action would make a difference. He wanted to get more involved because he felt, as I did, helpless to the point of almost being paralyzed. He was also angry at the lack of response on the part of the government. He’d also admit that a tiny part of him wanted to make up for the allegations of racism in the aftermath of Katrina. Some might speculate he had a bit of a white man‘s burden complex but I would say it was more that he wanted to reach out and extend a helping hand to strangers because as a kid, growing up as an army brat in Guam, he had seen firsthand how hurricanes had devastated the lives of his Guamanian friends. Perhaps this was his way of stepping up and doing his part now as an adult. It was Dan‘s war, if you will — that is, his dad was a Navy doctor who served during the end of the Vietnam War, but since Dan never followed him into the armed forces, this was his opportunity to make a difference: He launched his own one-man operation, military in its efficiency, to bring aid and comfort to those Katrina evacuees in need. He went there with the plan to bring these people back to Florida with him and help them get back on their feet again. He was determined to do something real and immediate to help.

Dan’s motives really were pure, but it’s still hard for a lot of people to understand why he would go and help all these people he didn’t know. People don’t always understand that anyone could find themselves in a terrible situation rivaling or even exceeding Katrina, and in that situation, the only thing you can depend on is the kindness of strangers. In the end, if we don‘t have that, what do we have? Dan‘s idea was so spontaneous and hair-brained when looking at it from the outside, that it was easy to express cynicism, and many of his friends and co-workers certainly did. But that‘s what is special about Dan‘s story and the story of his evacuees. It‘s like a Rorschach test. It brings to light people‘s own views and, at times, even prejudices. I‘ve had people here and there express surprise at how the story turns out. And they quickly look within themselves and see their own cynicism. It’s interesting what our expectations can tell us about ourselves.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t lack my own prejudices. The events of this trip made me question an uneasiness I found in myself as I meandered among people of lower socio-economic status, particularly those of color. I felt a pang of guilt and embarrassment at how New Orleans‘ African-American population was being treated, particularly by a mainstream media and this country‘s white elite establishment that viewed many of their actions of survival as „looting.“ As I talked to evacuees on cots and saw what little many of them possessed—normally plastic bags filled with family pictures, trinkets, love letters and whatever precious memento they‘d rather die than part with—I became angry. As I listened to their stories and looked at how they viewed me without judgment, not judging me by my own white skin tone, but just seeing me as a fellow human being no different than themselves, I felt as if all the stereotypes generated by the media and our society at large were swept away in an instant. I felt connected to them as a human being. And that feeling emboldened me to forego my initial intimidation about approaching evacuees. At first, I kept my emotional distance out of respect and sensitivity to what I believed was the racism they suffered at the hands of their own government. But I soon realized that putting up such a barrier only played into such divisions. I was letting my own internalized prejudices limit what help I could give them. This was a liberating experience personally for it proved that despite our different skin tones and even educational background, we‘re all the same underneath. We‘re all cut from the same cloth.

It sounds like this was almost a spiritual journey you were all on there together.

In a lot of respects, one of the most memorable realizations I know we all had — I’m talking volunteers and evacuees alike — was that in the midst of this terrible catastrophe, we were all experiencing a powerful spiritual renewal. I can‘t tell you how many times not only did I hear myself but others say, ‚despite how tragic this all is, it‘s beautiful to see so many people coming together to help each other in such dire times.‘ That communal spirit, that vibe that we‘re all in this together, was very prevalent in those days of Katrina‘s aftermath. It gave us all hope that maybe we as human beings could learn something out of this. That we‘re better as a people when we look out for each other, then when we‘re on our own. What I‘m saying isn‘t an indictment of capitalist America entirely, but it is an indictment about how the system is rigged by those seeking to subjugate others for their benefit. Racism and classism are merely by-products of such machinations. So for me, the beautiful part of taking on this project as a filmmaker was that it forced me to reach across the racial and class divide to tell their stories, enabling me to shed whatever preconceived notions I had that society had ingrained in me ever since I was old enough to walk.

And I think that’s what Dan was doing too. He wasn‘t a prophet. He was just simply trying to fulfill Jesus‘ Great Commandment, „love your neighbor as yourself“. Isn‘t that what the Bible teaches us? And yet, modern society looks upon such acts as bizarre. Dan‘s not even a particularly religious man. Far from it in fact. But his ability to love the stranger—while anathema to people in his own social circle—enabled him to overcome the skepticism necessary to get evacuees to come to Florida and find temporary homes and jobs. He gave them a unique opportunity to start their life anew with a kind of support many had never seen before. The fascinating thing about the film is how very different were all of their reactions. Dan provided this ‚bridge life‘ for these people – a life that eventually included free condos, food, clothing, financial support and help getting jobs and transportation—all the ingredients needed to help them on their way. And yet that didn’t mean that it was a success story for everyone involved. As you see in the movie, the results were mixed, ranging from exultant to tragic at times. Some took advantage of the opportunity while others made some bad choices, which took them down a different, darker path.

Dan says in the beginning that he had five stories of success and one tragedy and that he finds those to be pretty good. Do you think the results of his efforts somehow mirror other things about our society?

I think Dan‘s group is a microcosm of society in that it really brings together a group of strangers of varying racial and economic backgrounds and shows that when stripped of all the trappings that our consumerist life has to offer, in the end what we have is each other. The tragedy that occurs in the movie is an unfortunate twist, but it doesn‘t overshadow all the good that happens, and it’s also this tragedy that leaves many having to reconsider their own initial expectations as they viewed the film. If anything it reminds us of the choices we make and the unpredictable hand that life can sometimes deal us. That in turn allows us to appreciate all the good that came out of Dan and his evacuees‘ journey and makes it all the more powerful. The pay-it-forward mindset that he represents, that legacy of giving, is the glue that makes our society a stronger and happier place. If this film accomplishes anything, I hope it allows people, particularly those living lives of privilege and convenience, the feeling of what it might be like to suddenly one day lose everything you own, and in some cases, even lose family members, and have nothing but the clothes ON your back and have to start over. A person can learn a lot about himself and how he reacts in a crisis living through such trauma.

Incidents such as Katrina remind us of our capacity to love, empathize and create positive change. It‘s up to us to recognize those opportunities and take advantage of them. And in a sense politically at least we have taken a step in that direction by electing Barack Obama. In a way, I think this film is the perfect story for this new era we‘re entering. I love the irony that people keep mentioning—the fact that America had to live through eight years of hell under President Bush for people to consciously decide to elect this man to the nation‘s highest office. Sometimes progress means going two steps back and three steps forward. Of course, the pragmatics of the Obama presidency and wielding power will undoubtedly dull our expectations at some point, but there‘s no denying our desire to usher in rapid change, to find something meaningful. And that‘s a beautiful thing. Hopefully this film holds up a mirror to show what people really want in the coming years, a renewal of community and the American spirit.