Words by Angie Frissore

Harry Shearer to screen The Big Uneasy at the D.C. Independent Film Festival on 3/12/2011, details here.

Harry Shearer has been involved in some of the most celebrated and influential TV shows and films (Saturday Night Live, This is Spinal Tap, The Simpsons) and continues to come up with new, original and sometimes surprising ways to entertain and comment and enlighten. But it’s not all funny, all of the time.

Through his first full-length documentary, Shearer issues a dire warning: the devastating floods that almost swallowed the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina could very well happen again – and not just in New Orleans.

The Big Uneasy, which was released in August 2010 to coincide with the five-year anniversary of Katrina, tells the real story of how New Orleans was left vulnerable to the immense floodwaters – and it’s not the story the mainstream media would have you believe.

“It’s why the city flooded in 2005,” Shearer clarifies.  “The irony is that a system that was built to protect New Orleans from hurricanes flooded New Orleans worse than any hurricane ever has.”

Speaking to the investigators and engineering experts who were on the ground in New Orleans in 2005, Shearer gets the inside story from those who experienced it first-hand.   He even uncovers a whistleblower from the Army Corps of Engineers, whose tireless efforts has revealed that the same flawed systems that failed the city in 2005 are being used currently in the Army Corps’ effort to protect New Orleans going forward.

“It’s not as bright and rosy of a picture that the Army Corps of Engineers’ spokespeople would like to paint, that’s for sure.” notes Shearer, speaking of the frustrations that led him to eventually create the documentary.  “I’d been interviewing these people in the film on my radio program ever since the reports started coming out and we started learning what had really happened.  When President Obama came to New Orleans in October of 2009 and held a town meeting and called the flooding a ‘natural disaster’, my head figuratively exploded.  And I was aghast…certainly the road to his presidency was paved, in some measure, by the failure of the federal government in the aftermath of the flooding, so New Orleans couldn’t help but be of some significance.  And yet, there he was denying what we in the city knew to be fact.”

Realizing that the President was more than likely pandering to an ignorant public (who had been fed, according to Shearer, the media’s ‘Kent Brockman’ style of emotion-based journalism rather than hard facts), Shearer soon realized the need to take the true story behind the catastrophe to the public on a much larger scale.

Shearer’s foray from ‘mockumentarian’ to documentarian has, naturally, led some to label the modern-day Renaissance man ‘the new Michael Moore’, though Shearer himself is quick to dismiss any similarities.

“Michael Moore is pretty much front and center in his films,” he notes, “and I was very conscious that I did not want to be front and center in this.  I wanted the people who were front and center to be the people who really know what they’re talking about. I knew I was taking on a very large, very entrenched government agency, and five and a half years of media misinformation.  I couldn’t afford a spare frame on me, I need to focus on the people who could make the bullet-proof case with what the facts were.”

Shearer was so intent on being far from front and center that, in the first cut of the film, he makes no appearance.

“I really wasn’t going to be in the film at all, and in the first version I wasn’t. Audiences who saw that first version said, well, we need somebody to kind of say, why this, now?”

So, why this…now? Shearer is quick to point out that the levee failings in New Orleans isn’t something that is unique to that city alone – there are dozens of cities nationwide that exist below sea level and rely on similar structures to protect them from flooding.  Given the Army Corps’ perpetuation of the New Orleans levees’ initial flaws, catastrophic flooding is a potential reality faced by many – and they don’t even know it.

The Big Uneasy is screening at the D.C. Independent Film Festival on Saturday, March 12, at 6:00 pm at the Gala Theatre (3333 14th Street NW, Washington D.C., DC 20010; Metro: Columbia Heights).

Also on Saturday, don’t miss the Master Class with Harry Shearer taking place at 1:00 pm at the Gala Theatre, where you’ll get the opportunity to meet and talk with a legendary renaissance man who works easily from stage, to screen, to radio, to print.  Shearer will talk about his experiences in the media and entertainment worlds, how to hold onto your singular vision and how to multitask across different platforms.