Movie preview: Filmmaker was ready when Katrina hit

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"Hurricane on the Bayou" was originally meant to focus on the effects of a hypothetical storm. It turned out to be about the real thing.

By Adrian McCoy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In August 2005, director Greg MacGillivray was editing a new IMAX film about Louisiana's vanishing wetlands. It was designed to be part visual hymn to a beautiful and fragile natural habitat and part cautionary tale that posed the question: What would happen to New Orleans and surrounding areas if a major hurricane hit?

'Hurricane on the Bayou'

When: Opens today and continues through April 2007.

Where: Rangos Omnimax Theater, Carnegie Science Center.

Information: 412-237-3400 or

Related article: Bayou musicians play central role in IMAX movie

View the TV trailer.


At the end of the month, a hurricane named Katrina answered that question.

MacGillivray had originally planned to simulate what would happen in the event of a hypothetical storm. Instead, he ended up going back to film the real thing.

The result, "Hurricane on the Bayou," opens today at the Carnegie Science Center's Rangos Omnimax Theater.

MacGillivray's original mission was to make a conservation film. "I was interested in making a film about the wetlands and about saving this incredible environment, which is a treasure for our nation," he says.

Flood-control efforts have contributed to wetlands loss. Built on silt deposited from Mississippi River flooding, the Louisiana wetlands are eroding fast, with an area the size of Manhattan disappearing every year, according to the National Wetlands Research Center. The issue "had been on the radar locally but never nationally," MacGillivray says.

The wetlands act as a kind of buffer or speed bump, reducing storm surge during monster storms like Katrina. The film's ultimate message is that saving the wetlands means saving the Gulf Coast -- and countless lives.

When he heard the news about Katrina, MacGillivray took a crew back to Louisiana and began shooting what had turned from a speculative nature film into a documentary.

The crew faced many challenges. MacGillivray took trucks loaded with cameras, a large supply of film, plus food, water, tents, generators and other supplies. Conditions were dangerous. The single helicopter they had for filming aerial scenes had to navigate a sky traffic jam of rescue and news media aircraft. There were health and safety issues, along with facing a horrific human tragedy.

"It was like shooting in a war zone," MacGillivray recalls. "We encountered so much devastation and heartbreak. All of a sudden we had become war correspondents.

"We went down to get the best images but hoped to help people as well." The boats used for filming doubled as rescue vehicles in a few cases, he says.

The crew also returned to the bayou areas to document the impact there. The environmental disaster and loss of wildlife mirrored the stress and slow recovery they had seen in the city.

"The alligator population that survived was so traumatized that they didn't lay eggs the next year," MacGillivray says. "I don't think anything was not affected."

Although events changed the focus of "Hurricane on the Bayou," the original intent of the film remained the same -- to show the rest of the world the importance of saving a one-of-a-kind, magical place.

"[New Orleans] is a wonderful cultural environment," the filmmaker says. "What they do is treasured by everyone. And the natural beauty around them makes the place not only unique in America but unique in the world.

"Once you see the film, you'll feel like you visited another country. It's far different than anywhere else you've ever seen."

Narrated by Academy Award winner Meryl Streep, the film opens with a playful sequence of an alligator swimming underwater. Through the wide perspective of the IMAX camera, the dreamy magic of the bayou is magnified, as are the devastation and destruction that follow.

But the horrific images are balanced by a joyful and celebratory mood. Ultimately, its message is one of hope. Ending segments look at efforts to re-establish the wetlands: re-silting so vegetation can grow and planting grasses and mangroves that will hold the soil in place.

Interwoven is a rich soundtrack of Louisiana music. The musicians are also the film's main characters, particularly fiddler Amanda Shaw. Much of the movie is seen through the eyes of Shaw, a 14-year-old Cajun prodigy who recounts her experiences and that of her family in escaping the storm and returning to find their home destroyed.

Adrian McCoy can be reached at .


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