Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer After the Flood

Documentary filmmaker tells the story of when the levee broke.

By Ashley Fantz

AUGUST 16, 1999:  John Tigrett was 14 years old when the waters of the Mississippi River reached for his throat.

The boy had been foolish enough to take his boat -- a rickety thing not much sturdier than Huck Finn's raft -- and paddle out on the rising flood that would mark 1927 for those alive to remember its catastrophic destruction. Tigrett's job was to rescue the stranded from the angry river. He just couldn't believe it when he saw a pregnant woman lying atop her roof.

"My baby is comin'," she panted.

"I'll take you to shore, if you just hold on," he told her.

"I can't!" she screamed and with that, Tigrett delivered the woman's baby. With as much gentleness as his rocking, muddy boat would allow, he lowered the baby into the water to wash away the blood.

Retelling this story, captured in a documentary tentatively called The Greatest Flood of the Century, brought tears to Tigrett's 86-year-old eyes. He was among more than 17 flood witnesses that New York City film company Steward/Gazit interviewed for the PBS program The American Experience. The film is scheduled to air in the winter of 2000. Tigrett died a few months after the interview.

Director Chana Gazit has been making documentaries for more than 20 years and found her latest year-long project no less intriguing than her previous works, which include a narrative film on the Dustbowl. Gazit's simple interviewing style, comfortable lighting, and focus on firsthand testimonials give this latest film an intimate atmosphere. She and a six-person crew spent months filming around Mississippi and Tennessee, not including time trying to track down survivors at nursing homes and through word of mouth.

"To be allowed into these peoples' lives and ask them to remember a time when their will was put to an extreme test gives me tremendous strength as a filmmaker," Gazit says.

The idea for the documentary came initially from John M. Barry's book Rising Tide, an account of the flood's impact on race, politics, and culture. Barry's research explored the construction of levees, which, in the late 1880s, inspired a clash of egos between two engineers -- Andrew Atkinson Humphreys and James Buchanan Eads. Each, eager to impose his legacy, made headlines bickering over whose levee proposals could best contain the river.

The book takes a more winding turn when a Dynasty-like family feud within a politically powerful Delta family erupts, pitting poet Will Percy against his father, one-time Mississippi senator LeRoy Pratt Percy, over whether to evacuate blacks from flood dangers. But the flood, Barry argues, changed more than the Midwest and South -- it allowed Herbert Hoover to manipulate flood relief to suit his own public image and eventually win him the White House.

Gazit, however, is primarily interested in the lives of ordinary people, transitioning the interviews with short, narrative explanations and contemporary film footage and still photographs. Thanks to Hoover, photographers came to the Delta in droves, many of them members of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Gazit also incorporates footage from the 1993 Mississippi flood. The 7-month long disaster brought the river's crest to 49 feet, 7 inches -- 11 times the volume of Niagara Falls.

"The same issues that were relevant to people in 1993 were relevant to people in 1927," Gazit says. "But in 1927, the tension between the races was much more potent. I noticed, in the black people I interviewed, a bitterness about the way they were treated."

Blacks, for example, were often forced to sandbag levees for days without pay, with their white supervisors taunting them while they worked. Race-related fights broke out, resulting in several shooting deaths on both sides. After the flood, blacks stayed in Mississippi and Tennessee, but their children, fazed by what they had seen, started migrating north.

Gazit and her crew traveled to Chicago, where today the Greenville Club, made up of survivors and their children from the Mississippi town that saw some of the worst flooding, still meets every now and then.

"There is something about their experience from home that they didn't want to let go of," Gazit says. "It's hard to understand as an outsider -- the roots one has growing up in the Delta."

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