Credit: Kerry St. Pe

“Someone, you finally realize, has suffered
your exact misfortune before you.

This one the steady vanishing
of your birthplace before your eyes.

As common and disordered
as a parent burying a child . . . . The trees

stand dead but don’t fall.
Veins in the Gulf will swell, too,

carrying grayed-out swirls—ghosts—
to greed’s unbroken refrain.” 

—”A Corollary” by Martha Serpas, from her 2006 collection The Dirty Side of the Storm

Dams, levees, hurricanes, and global warming have all contributed to the destruction of Louisiana’s bayous. And with the bayous goes the state’s Cajun culture, which is deeply rooted in the geography of the Mississippi Delta. For the past seven years, Elizabeth Coffman and Ted Hardin have been working on Veins in the Gulf, a film about the disappearance of the Cajuns’ homelands. Now, thanks to the BP oil disaster, the eyes of the world are once again turned on this ravaged region, and the filmmakers have an opportunity to place the latest crisis in the broader context of its impact on the region’s ecosystem and on the communities living through it.

“The oil hit first and hit hardest,” says Coffman, “right at the spot that is the focus of our film.”

After something like 20 trips to the region, the couple returned to Louisiana this month and encountered plenty of anger among the people they’ve been following—but not necessarily directed where you’d expect. “They’re not mad at BP, they’re mad at the federal government for putting a halt to the offshore drilling,” Coffman says. “They compare it to a mining accident—you don’t shut down an entire industry because of one accident.”

Even fishermen put out of work by the spill feel too tied to the oil industry to hold much rancor toward BP, Hardin says. “Every family has a relative working in the oil industry,”

“Cajuns have this history of cultural and religious repression,” Coffman says. “They feel like expatriates in their own country.”

BP has barred employees and contractors from talking to journalists and banned media from observing the worst damage, but even apparently pristine coastline offers dark surprises. “You step on what looks like a normal beach and it seeps,” Hardin says. “The oil is right underneath the seemingly clear surface.”

Coffman, 45, was a grad student in cinema studies at the University of Florida in Gainesville in 1990 when serial killer Danny Rolling murdered five UF students. Coffman and her feminist reading group responded to the tragedy by forming the media collective FemTV and producing the video Homesick: The Gainesville Student Murders.

“That instinct of reacting to trauma is one of the things that motivates me,” Coffman says. “Looking at communities trying to deal with trauma.”

Coffman and Hardin, also a filmmaker, started bumping into each other at academic conferences in the mid-90s. By 1996, when they began actively corresponding, Coffman was teaching at Tampa State and Hardin was teaching at the University of Arizona. In 1998 he came to Chicago to teach at Columbia College.

That year Coffman made the short film Wedding in Croatia, about the marriage of her sister, an election monitor in Sarajevo, to a Balkan war veteran. Fascinated by Bosnia’s postwar healing process, she invited Hardin to collaborate on a feature-length documentary, One More Mile: A Dialogue on Nation-Building. “Everywhere you turn your cameras in those mountains, there’s a story,” Coffman says. “We saw how capitalism and communism, Islam and Christianity all had this collision there.

“We interviewed high school students from Christian and Muslim backgrounds,” she continues. “For the large part, the young people just wanted move on with some semblance of life as they’d known it. They didn’t care about national boundaries. The healing process was about moving on from disaster and resuming a normal cultural life.”

“We like to say that was our first date, making the film in Bosnia,” Hardin says.

In 2001, as they were completing One More Mile, they set to work on a documentary about Ralph Nader, eventually accumulating 120 hours of footage on his 2004 presidential bid. With Hardin living in Chicago and Coffman still in Florida, they went on to make the 2003 short film Long Distance about their own relationship, a meditation on the contrasts between Florida and Chicago and the dissociation of separation.

In the fall of 2003, a colleague of Coffman’s at Tampa State, poet Martha Serpas, invited Coffman and Hardin to film a trip down Bayou Lafourche. The bayou, south of New Orleans, was an outlet of the Mississippi until it was dammed early in the last century. The area was settled by French-speaking Acadians expelled from Canada by the British in the 1700s and remains a center of Cajun culture. A native of the region, Serpas has been called the poet laureate of Bayou Lafourche. On that first visit Serpas introduced Hardin and Coffman to people whose homes and livelihoods were being swallowed by the rising Gulf of Mexico.

“Martha has been our emotional, cultural, and political guide in the project,” Coffman says. Serpas’s poetry weaves through the film, evoking the connection the Cajuns feel to the land, the water, and the wind and searching for ways to deal with the inevitable pain of loss.

Musician Tab Benoit, who founded the advocacy group Voice of the Wetlands, tells the filmmakers that when he was a kid his family’s property lost 50 yards in five years: “We’d swing on that tree, and then that tree would fall in, and we’d have to go to that tree, and that tree would fall, and we’d go to the next one, until there weren’t any trees left. The whole section of woods was wiped out, just from the bank eroding.”

“It’s difficult for me to imagine that my hometown will be here in 75 years,” Serpas says.

“Her sensibility reminds us of the power of the present tense, of being in touch with your emotions in a more sophisticated way,” Hardin says. “The primary emotion that resists change is fear. ‘I don’t want things to be different.’ If you stop there, you can go into denial and angry outbursts. If you keep tuned into your emotions,” you can be more open to new possibilities and potential solutions.

“I keep urging her to write about the oil spill,” Hardin says. “But you can’t put a quarter in and something pops out.”

Veins in the Gulf started as a side project for Coffman and Hardin, but calamity turned it into an epic undertaking. Coffman came to Chicago in 2004, as cofounder of Loyola’s Center for Global Media and Documentary Studies. Soon after moving here, she was struck by a motorcycle while riding her bike. She was hospitalized for a month with head trauma and some memory loss. While she was incapacitated, another Nader documentary, An Unreasonable Man, “zoomed ahead of us,” Hardin says, and they set aside their own Nader film.

“Almost as part of my recovery, we kept going back on this paddle trip” down the bayou, Coffman says. “The story kept expanding. Over time you see how these characters’ lives change, how they all keep connected to their community and keep fighting for it.”

In the 1930s the federal government began building levees to protect coastal regions from the kind of devastation wreaked by the Great Flood of 1927. An unintended consequence of the levees is that sediment from the Mississippi now flows directly into the gulf instead of passing through the wetlands, where it used to replace land lost to erosion.

Energy companies have contributed to the land loss as well, cutting canals through the marshes to extract oil and gas. And rising sea levels due to global warming have done their part. In all, 1,900 square miles of Louisiana wetlands have disappeared since 1930; another 25 square miles is vanishing every year.

In 2005 Katrina hit, and Coffman and Hardin decided to make the bayou film their primary project. The region was getting international attention, but most of the coverage overlooked the key role that wetland loss plays in intensifying storms’ impact. “A mile of marsh knocks down a storm surge by a foot,” Hardin says.

“Without [the wetlands], New Orleans and other areas cannot protect themselves,” Coffman says. “No levee is strong enough to withstand the 20 feet of storm surge that a hurricane can bring in. This is part of the reason [Katrina] was so damaging.

The wetlands could also play a key role in dealing with the oil spill. “The wetlands are the kidneys of the land,” Hardin says. “They have so much oil-eating bacteria. They break down everything. They take toxins that come into the water column and they remove them.” And if more wetlands were left, they could filter more of the oil from the water system.”

What’ll happen now is anyone’s guess. “Things had gotten so desperate in terms of coastal restoration that the oil industry was starting to step up to the table with environmentalists and politicians,” says Coffman. “They want to keep the port alive and keep the infrastructure there. But now with this spill, the concern is that coastal restoration will get sidelined again.”

The Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Agency of the Army Corps of Engineers estimates the cost of restoring and protecting the coast somewhere between 70 and 139 billion dollars.

Coffman and Hardin are screening footage of their film this weekend, to raise funds to complete it. They plan to show the finished product at a conference in September at the University of Pennsylvania in Scranton and then at the University of Houston, where Serpas now teaches. They’ll make one more trip to the gulf this summer to wrap up filming. By then they hope to find the people of the bayou moving beyond crisis mode and focusing on recovery.

“We came to see we’re doing something very similar to the Bosnia film,” Coffman says, “looking at how a community is responding, organizing themselves to heal after these disasters and crises, seeing how they’re putting it back together again.”