'Right at Your Door' Questions Disaster Readiness
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.
With the anniversary of September 11th looming and the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina just passed, many of us have been asking about government preparedness for another disaster. A new film called "Right at Your Door" dramatizes the effects of a dirty bomb attack on Los Angeles.
Iris Mann examines the film's premise in this report.
IRIS MANN: First-time filmmaker Chris Gorak presents his main character and the audience with a difficult decision - how far to go to survive.
Mr. CHRIS GORAK (Producer, "Right at Your Door"): It is thrown right in the audiences' lap. What would you do in this situation? And it is a movie about survival.
MANN: The audience gets the same sketchy information the characters get over the radio.
(Soundbite of movie, "Right at Your Door")
Unidentified Woman: When I lost contact with you, Neal(ph), I was trying to get a better vantage point. The police asked me if it was a question of life and death and I said, come on, I have to get close there. And a portion of the library tower exploded. People are screaming.
MANN: Shadowy response crews who appear intermittently in heavy gear and gas masks order the hero to seal himself in his house and wait until help arrives.
Mr. GORAK: I was in final sound mix in August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina occurred, so we were mixing things like help is on the way. And, you know, what I thought was fiction became true in the days following Katrina, and it was kind of spooky. And having lived in New Orleans, it affected me probably more than September 11th. And I feel, because it was a natural disaster, the lack of readiness, lack of response, it was just completely unacceptable. And that theme is in our film.
MANN: Progress has been made when it comes to stockpiling medicine and supplies, says Dr. Peter Katona. He is an associate professor of clinical medicine at UCLA and a bioterrorism expert. And he's seen "Right at Your Door." He says while communications systems in Los Angeles are pretty good, the film is not too far off the mark in its depiction of poor communication between local government and the public in a disaster.
Dr. PETER KATONA (Associate Professor, Clinical Medicine, UCLA School of Medicine; Bioterrorism Expert): I went to a conference a number of years ago where they had the mayors of a number of different cities present. And at one of the sessions, they asked for mayor volunteers and they gave them a scenario of a terrorist attack and asked them what they would do. And it seemed pretty clear from that conference that a lot of these people had no idea what to do. They gave information out to the media that was incorrect because they didn't want to give bad news out. But then, of course, they laid the groundwork for not believing the next time they made a statement. So the fact that things came out in that way in that film was very interesting to me.
MANN: Katona says the film's depiction of bombs releasing a virus is more fiction than science.
Filmmaker Chris Gorak readily admits taking liberties, and says his real challenge was bringing in a disaster movie on a $500,000 budget.
Mr. GORAK: We realized that we would see the disaster from the characters' perspectives so we wouldn't spend all our money on one big god shot of the disaster from the heavens, here is Los Angeles burning. The character would look a specific way and see the disaster looming in the distance, through his car windshield or through his home window. And just cutting to them like another shot made it feel a little bit more real and scary.
MANN: The film would have been fine if it just dealt with the disaster, says movie critic Emanuel Levy, who also teaches film studies at UCLA. The problem for Levi is that the story gets sidetracked on the relationship between the hero and his wife.
Professor EMANUEL LEVY (Film Critic; Film Studies, UCLA): What they talk about is about their marriage. They don't talk about politics. And that, to me, was very, very strange. And the movie lost me at this point. So it becomes like a psychological melodrama without giving you the dramatic foundations, you know, like motivation. Who are they in terms of values? So it's a movie that establishes very well an intriguing premise and then leaves it at that, and it doesn't develop much.
MANN: Levy comes down on one side of a critical divide over this film.
Chris Gorak feels his biggest enemy was time. He says when you're a filmmaker dealing with contemporary issues, you can never work fast enough to keep up with the changes in the world outside your studio. And while duct tape has become the stuff of jokes, he did make the conscious decision to avoid using the words terrorist or terrorist attack.
Mr. GORAK: That was definitely a conscious omission, and we call it the T-word. So because we live in this world of all of this, unfortunately, we don't need to educate the audience about it. Everyone's picturing what they know at that point. So I intentional left it out. So at the end of the film, people would say, hey, who did this?
MANN: Gorak describes "Right at Your Door" as a work that verges on science fiction. If some of the elements seem extreme, he says, it's only 2007. Take a look at the film 10 years from now.
For NPR News, I'm Iris Mann.