Paul Stekler arrived in New Orleans for the first time in 1981. The New Jersey native had never seen anything like it. Heat and humidity blanketed the town, massive insects assailed from all directions and the apartments he investigated for living were substandard. He was shocked. And he’d soon be in love.
Second-line parades. Jazz funerals. Red beans and rice. Nighttime boat rides in gator-infested swamps. World-class musicians with no air of pretense. Absurd characters in the streets of the French Quarter. A fascinating mix of races living in tight proximity. And a notoriously corrupt political system. It was like the world’s greatest movie, and he was seeing it all for the first time.
“Once I figured the place out, it was unbelievable. It was so amazingly weird. Everything was great,” Stekler said recently. “There’s absolutely nothing like it.”
He had moved to New Orleans to teach politics at Tulane University, though his tenure would not last long. Stekler soon met filmmakers Louis Alvarez and Andy Kolker. They welcomed Stekler to their joy ride of cultural anthropology, as practiced through the lens of a camera. In the three decades since, the trio have collaborated on three documentaries. Their most recent, “Getting Back to Abnormal,” makes its world premiere Monday at the Paramount Theatre as part of South by Southwest.
A passion for the numbers and competitive nature of politics bloomed in Stekler at an early age. When he was 7 his parents found him on a street corner polling people about their preference in the Kennedy-Nixon contest for president. He still has a journal from when he was 11 that charted Barry Goldwater’s long march to victory, state-by-state, in the 1964 presidential Republican primary. Just a few years later Stekler, who grew up listening to his grandfather extol the virtues of Franklin D. Roosevelt, worked as an organizer for George McGovern.
“So I was very flexible,” Stekler says with a chuckle.
A course in Southern politics and a brush with Robert Clark (Mississippi’s first African-American elected official since Reconstruction) at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government turned Stekler on to the political, social and cultural dynamics of the American South.
He flew down to Mississippi in the summer of 1976 and drove around for a month interviewing people. The trip would turn into his dissertation and eventually lead Stekler to the position at Tulane.
But as he got to know the city, his interests spilled outside the world of academia. Following his stewardship of the failed mayoral campaign for reform candidate Bill Jefferson, who would go on to serve in the U.S. Congress before landing in prison, Stekler decided to make a documentary, “Hands That Picked Cotton: Black Politics in Today’s Rural South,” a cinematic extension of his dissertation.
An employee at the local PBS station pointed Stekler to Alvarez and Kolker for guidance. The two had recently made “Ends of the Earth,” a film about a disgraced Louisiana judge. After seeing the film, Stekler called Alvarez and Kolker at their Center for New American Media offices. He expressed his interest in filmmaking to Kolker.
“He said, ‘You buy me a beer, I’ll tell you everything you need to know,’” Stekler said.
The shot clock on Stekler’s time as a professor and professional politico had started.
“It was the kind of place where you could be anything. It’s sort of like Mardi Gras — you decide you want to be something, and you do it. So I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker,” Stekler said. “It was a crazy place. And I ruined a really good career as a political scientist and ruined a pretty good career as a political pollster, just because it was so much fun making films and being able to use that skill to be able to figure out a place.”
Stekler left New Orleans in the late 1980s and moved to Boston to work for filmmaker Henry Hampton but always stayed in touch with his friends. He returned south in 1997, this time to Austin, where he took a job at the University of Texas. In 2010 he was named chairman of the university’s Radio, Television and Film program. The proximity to Alvarez and Kolker allowed the men to collaborate on a couple of films, with Stekler still keeping a foot in the world of politics that he loved.
The trio’s first film, “Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics,” aired on PBS’s POV series and won a Columbia duPont journalism award. Their follow-up effort, “Vote for Me: Politics in America,” went deep inside Texas politics with an open mic and won a Peabody Award. They worked on “Vote for Me” with editor Peter Odabashian, who also worked on “Getting Back to Abnormal.”
Stekler returned to New Orleans to see his friends and his ravaged adopted hometown about six weeks after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The pictures had not prepared them for what they found in the Ninth Ward. Boats on top of houses, cars stacked in the streets as makeshift barricades. Complete ruin. Stekler was devastated.
“We love the city. The city made us. It changed my life,” Stekler said.
Part of Stekler wanted to document the aftermath of Katrina immediately. But he and his friends didn’t want to make the same movie that dozens of other filmmakers were rushing to produce. When those other films were released, Stekler felt they lacked something.
“A lot of the docs, we felt like they didn’t really get the DNA of the place. They don’t feel like New Orleans,” Stekler said.
They waited out the flood of films, unsure whether they would ever make their own New Orleans movie.
But when Stekler visited in 2008 and heard radio reports and read news stories about criminal indictments being brought against politicians, his curiosity was piqued. When he heard about Stacy Head and her campaign for City Council re-election, he had found his story. It was time for the guys to make their New Orleans movie. And what better way to enter the story of the city but through the lens of politics.
New Orleans’ recent political history was marred with political scandal. As the city tried to reboot following Katrina, some of the social and political dynamics and demographics were changing.
Head, a native Louisianan, was running for re-election for her place on the City Council and doing so in a very nontraditional manner. The Harvard University graduate, who in 2006 had become the first white council member to represent her inner city district in three decades, stepped on toes with her brash comments about the state of the city. She challenged the entrenched bureaucracy, called out corruption and demanded accountability.
“There’s a lot of different roads to Damascus, and not everyone takes the road that she takes,” Stekler said of Head.
Head drew scathing accusations of racism despite the fact that her biggest supporter and organizer was charismatic African-American Barbara Lacen-Keller. Her opponent in the 2010 race, pastor Corey Watson, a rising star in a family with a long history at the pulpit, stoked the fire of racial discord during the election, all the while with a smile on his face.
The City Council race uncovered the shifting dynamics in New Orleans politics and in the black community, as protectors of the old guard clung to a corrupt system with a suspicious eye toward those they felt were trying to change New Orleans for the worse, while a cadre of young professionals, black and white, took the opportunity to rebuild the city from the inside.
The boisterous and affable Lacen-Keller commands attention in every scene in which she appears, rallying the faithful and challenging the doubters in her community. An indefatigable Head bounces from council meetings to contentious radio appearances to campaign rallies, propelled by a dogged determination in the face of nasty accusations of racism.
The film weaves through New Orleans like a second line parade, absorbing the sites, sounds and smells of the unique town that some have described as the “northernmost Caribbean island.” Journalists, politicians, activists and longtime citizens describe the importance and power of the town and its people.
The filmmakers reveal New Orleans as a city that has been the architect of much of its own misery, a place swelling with joy and pain, where the party goes on often in an effort to drown out the sorrow.
The narrative swerves to touch on aspects of rebuilding, such as public housing and the arrival of deep-pocketed nonprofits to rehabilitate New Orleans, but the story always returns to the fascinating team of Head and Lacen-Keller, who embody the complications of a slowly changing city.
“Getting Back to Abnormal” makes no moral judgments on the city beloved by these filmmakers and makes no guesses as to the city’s fate. The film poses as many questions as answers about the future of New Orleans, but the rich cinematic experience leaves no doubt about the importance of this town so long bereft with racial, political and socio-economic strife.
“I’ve always thought as a documentary filmmaker that we know something and we want other people to know about it,” Stekler said.
What did they want audiences to know about New Orleans?
“That it’s an amazing place and that it’s worth saving and it’s worth visiting, and it’s a place worth understanding and understanding its incredibly important place in American culture.”
What: ‘Getting Back to Abnormal’ world premiere at SXSW
When: 11:15 a.m. Monday
Where: Paramount Theatre (713 Congress Ave.)
Tickets: Tickets available at the theater box office before screening and at AustinTheatre.org/film. Badge and wristband holders have priority access.
More information: SXSW.com/film and AustinTheatre.org/film.
Notes: Also screens Tuesday (Alamo Slaughter) and Wednesday (Long Center).