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Released last week, the DVD compilation of Spike Lee's documentary When the Levees Broke is a charming antidote to holiday cheer. More sobering than depressing, it's a must for anyone who cares at all about New Orleans. The four-hour vision of the city after Hurricane Katrina contains everything you'd expect — rage, horror, disgust, sorrow, and moments of surprising, lively humor. Lee is not a subtle filmmaker, but he's plenty smart enough to let the scenes and interview subjects speak for themselves. And they speak volumes. Nothing on the scale of Katrina has happened to modern America, and no disaster so large has been so thoroughly covered in the media. But even if you watched the Katrina coverage religiously, you didn't see the personal angles presented here (sometimes to pretty heart-rending effect). Original footage and news reports are seamlessly wed, and the devastation and citizenry alike are beautifully shot. The DVD comes with the usual audio commentary track (Lee, talking over the footage and providing a few interesting side notes, but often doing the voiceover he wisely left out of the film itself), plus an additional epilogue featurette and a slideshow. But it's the interviews that make When the Levees Broke an instant classic, in all their confused, angry, sincere, painful, and profane glory. The easy path would call for a good wallow in the pain, but neither Lee nor his interviewees are interested in what's easy. It's refreshing to feel yourself engaging with the actual stories of a documentary, with a deft though heavy-handed filmmaker like Lee rightly ceding center stage to his subjects.

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts