Katrina's Collateral Damage (Think Four-Legged and Furry)

AFS Documentary Tour presents 'Mine'


Since Geralyn Pezanoski's documentary Mine won the Documentary Feature Audience Award at the 2009 South by Southwest Film Festival, the film has won Best Feature at the San Francisco DocFest and has been picked up by the PBS Independent Lens series. It's doing pretty well for a tear-jerker about pets left behind during Hurricane Katrina, but it still meets resistance, both from animal lovers who don't want to see pets suffer and from skeptics who ask, "Why make a movie about the animals when you could make a movie about the people?" The story of New Orleans' pets, however, is the story of the people. Mine is a window into a system that allowed for pets to be ripped from people's arms, left to die, and later returned not to their bereaved families but oftentimes to entirely new people. It's also about people all over the country who reached out to help and the prejudices, misunderstandings, and bureaucracies that sometimes turned them against one another. Ultimately, however, it's about the undeniable healing that pets bring to people's lives. So watch it, animal lovers – those tears will be (mostly) happy ones.

Austin Chronicle: How did this project get started?

Geralyn Pezanoski: After Katrina, I knew that I wanted to respond in some way. I was actually already on a commercial job so by the time that finished, it was about five weeks after Katrina. ... What I found was all the people had finally been evacuated, but there were still these pets there. I ended up connecting with the Humane Society of Louisiana and they said: "Hey, can you come and help us? We were supposed to have our big fundraiser in November, and we obviously can't do that now." So I decided to go down and film for them to create a series of fundraising PSAs. [After] about six weeks, I came back and edited the PSAs ... and then just kind of went back to my life and thought I was done with that.

But one sort of fateful thing kept me hooked into it, which is that I had decided to foster one of the dogs that I met when I was down there, and in February [2006] I got a letter from the rescue organization saying, "Her owners never came forward, she's yours, you can adopt her." Right around that time, I heard the first whisper of a story of someone wanting their pet back and meeting resistance around that. ... Having that coincide with being told that Nola's owners weren't coming forward, and then hearing the story, I thought, "What do I really know?" I think within a week I was on a plane to New Orleans again.

AC: The film really brings home the trauma people experienced in having to abandon their pets.

GL: People were once victimized by the storm, and of course people of a lower economic status in society are the ones who suffer the most in a catastrophe like this, so I felt like people were sort of being double victimized because of that – and open to being scrutinized in a way that I don't know if most of us would hold up [under]. ... During the first six weeks I was down there, there were only rescuers in the city, and there was a lot of judgment, because when people saw the conditions the animals were left in – they weren't actually left in those conditions, but they ended up in those after the flooding and everything. ... I think that led to a lot of the very emotional decisions not to return pets, that idea that none of these people deserved to have their animals back because they failed them in such a huge, monumental way. But those rescuers who did get a chance to talk to people and hear people's stories – how they really didn't want to leave them and were trying against all odds to get back in the city – then they really understood.

AC: I'm curious how you got people to talk to you, especially those like Tiffany Mansfield, who must have known she might appear as a bad guy since she didn't want to return a Katrina dog.

GL: I think I went into it understanding both sides, and I think she felt that. There were some times when I would go into an interview expecting to find a bad guy, and I don't think I ever did.

AC: Before I saw the movie, I was warned that no one can watch it without melting into a puddle of tears.

GL: This is sort of the catch-22 of making a film about animals, because the obvious audience of animal people are so sensitive that they're afraid they can't watch it. ... I had a lot of people come up to me at screenings and say, "I really want to watch it, but I need you to tell me it's gonna be okay." ... They all afterward tell me they're really glad they did. When you take on an animal you know what you're opening yourself up to. It's that deep connection that you're going to feel and then this inevitable heartbreak. It's part of being a pet guardian. ... So I think that's what the film is. You experience those moments of joy and then those heartbreaking moments. I feel like the movie is pretty equal parts of those.

AFS Documentary Tour presents Mine on Wednesday, April 14, 7pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz. Tickets are $4 for AFS members and $6 for the general public. For more info, see www.austinfilm.org.

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