My taxi driver apologized: the way to my hotel was blocked by the final parade and last hurrah of New Orlean’s Mardi Gras. I exited the cab and joined on foot the unorganized tail-end of one of the last expressions of the medieval carnavale, now a satirical and sartorially-excessive thumbing of the nose (and other body parts) at the privileges of religion and power as well as the modern conventions of gender and race. I made it to the Riverside Hilton relatively unscathed, except for a cheek stung by an aggressively thrown bead necklace. At the reception area the changing of the guard had already begun, a group of unsteady couples in smudged blackface and brillo-pad wigs checking out, earnest-looking academics checking in. I had come for another kind of circus, the annual gathering of my clan at the International Studies Association Convention; with a surfeit of panels on the ‘Long War’, Afghanistan, and counter-insurgencey, I thought it the perfect focus group for a screening of Human Terrain.
If the day had started as carnavalesque, the evening was straight out of the third panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s phantasmic Garden of Earthly Delights. With the fall of darkness and onset of drunkenness (others, of course, not mine), the masks, costumes and cast of characters took on an added grotesqueness – and menace. En route to my restaurant, I made the mistake of trying to cross Bourbon Street and got swept up by the delirious crowd, stepping over and sometimes unable to avoid stepping on fallen revelers. My restaurant reservation had gone missing so I ate at one end of the bar while at the other a group bedecked in a variety of satanic outfits carried on, with one guy punctuating the conversation every five minutes with a Tourette’s-like shout of ‘Let’s get f***ked up!’ I began to wonder if my decision to screen Human Terrain in the heart of the French Quarter had been a wise one.
Not that I had much of a choice. We had planned months in advance to take advantage of the annual gathering of academic peers to screen Human Terrain at the oldest, single-screen cinema in New Orleans. However, with about a week to go we were informed that our coveted Friday evening time slot was not available. I quickly shot an email to my former graduate student, Bret, who many years back had helped out with my first public-access TV show, ‘Great Decisions’, a kind of ‘Wayne’s World’ meets ‘Bill Moyers’ on the most pressing global issues of the day. Bret made a trip to see if New Orleans might be a better fit than UMASS/Amherst; he never looked or came back. In spite of the gap since I’d last seen him, his reply to my email query was swift and decisive: come screen Human Terrain at his place, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Café. It turns out the owner of the Café had produced Hollywood films (yes, the ‘Big Easy’ was one of them) and had installed a high-definition projector in the main dining area, along with numerous flat-screen TV’s in just about every balcony, section, and nook of the restaurant; the sound system, pumping out JB’s songs 24/7, was of course top-notch. Bret was willing to close the place a bit early, and let us take it over for Human Terrain.
Which we did, on the final night of the ISA convention. Some came early for dinner and the signature drinks; by the 10 pm show time we had filled the main floor and a couple of balconies (see pix). After a rousing intro by Bret, we started the film, which was projected on the big screen, the sail of the boat suspended from the ceiling, and on 9 of the 21 flat-screens: Human Terrain in surround sound-and-light! Phil had come along to help with the tech and to film the strangeness of it all (see pic); everything went off without a hitch.
The Q & A was interesting, much like others where academics make up the bulk of the audience. Many of the comments took on the character of an ISA panel, with many rehearsing the role of discussant (i.e., ‘Allow me explain how this paper/film fails to appreciate my approach/contribution to the field of International Relations…’). The empirico-materialist in the crowd found fault with the failure to point out that scholars like Michael joined the Human Terrain program for the pay (I guess we need to have Hugh Gusterson add an exclamation point when he says just that in the film). The neoliberal institutionalists thought we should have said more about the efficacy and metrics for success of the HT program. The realists thought we neglected the balance of power between the military and civilian sectors. The posties would have liked the film to be more open-ended; the policy-types wanted more hard answers, fewer open-ended questions. Somewhat useful, more in an ethnographic than cinematic kind of way, the comments, as often as not contradicting each other, confirmed a home-truth: documentary films cannot be made by committee. Nonetheless, we decided (yet) another edit was needed before we took the film to Hot Docs…
Above all else the New Orlean’s screening confirmed the value of friendship. I was ever grateful to Phil, Lindsay, and Bret who turned crisis into a unique opportunity; and to the ISA posse that ventured off-site and into the French Quarter to see what Human Terrain was all about. Now if we can just get Jimmy B. to blurb the film…..