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Mandy Giampaolo Looks at Katrina’s Effects Through a Different Lens

Host of U.Va. Grads Choose Service to Community and Country

Mandy Giampaolo, a self-described “Navy brat,” spent much of her childhood in Biloxi, Mississippi, a Gulf Coast town nearly swept away during Hurricane Katrina.

Giampaolo, now a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia majoring in American studies and media studies and minoring in studio art, was a teenager when she evacuated.

“I went to Florida and lived with my grandparents for a few months,” she said. “When I came back there were three schools going to one school. Most of my friends didn’t have homes anymore. The entire community was turned inside-out and in a lot of ways it hasn’t recovered.”

This winter – more than eight years after Katrina devastated the Mississippi coast – Giampaolo returned to her childhood home, video camera in hand. Her trip to Biloxi was not borne out of nostalgia. Having decided to create a documentary for her distinguished major in media studies, she planned to ask people about their memories of the storm.

Some of the people were from her past: Biloxi residents who had moved in with her family after losing their home; friends she’d grown up with. Others were new to her; Habitat for Humanity put her in contact with two people who ended up being the focus of her film.

“It was really surprising for me to go back to Biloxi eight years later,” Giampaolo said. “Just to drive around the coast where there used to be such beautiful houses, and now it’s empty lot after empty lot – I didn’t expect to go down there and see that still. The communities on the coast are still completely devastated.”

The idea of filming a documentary about how Katrina upturned her childhood town had been brewing in her mind since her second year at U.Va. “I came into a media studies class and we were talking about Hurricane Katrina news coverage, which is an interesting topic because it’s so racially charged,” Giampaolo said. “It occurred to me that no one knew the story that I experienced firsthand.”

Most people she encountered at the University had no idea how working-class white Southerners had attempted to make sense of the hurricane after it swept through the Gulf Coast in 2005. “Everyone knows about Katrina, but it’s associated with New Orleans,” she said. “So I wanted to tell this other version that went untold.”

Giampaolo shot 35 hours of footage for her 25-minute film. The film features interviews with Biloxi residents recounting their storm stories. It also includes re-enactments featuring Giampaolo.

The editing process “was awful,” she said. “I had no idea what it was like to edit a documentary. Sitting down to these three-hour interviews and having to go through them and edit them down until they were five minutes long was incredibly difficult.”

To shoot her documentary, she used three different kinds of film – 16mm, super 8, and digital film. Each film stock creates a different aesthetic. And each different “look” – each medium – registers a different way of remembering Katrina.

With her quasi-avant-garde approach, Giampaolo sought to underline the instability of memory, she said. For example, early in the film the people she interviews describe what it was like to prepare for the hurricane. Later those fragments come back in a visually distorted way.

“Documentary is a unique form in our culture because people treat it as objective and true as opposed to narrative cinema,” Giampaolo said. “I think that’s wrong. Documentary is about subjectivity. All the people interviewed are subjective characters.”

Despite its visual complexity, the film is easy to view, she said. She recently screened it for her American studies seminar. She credits Kevin Everson, a professor in the McIntire Department of Art, for helping her develop her visual style.

Giampaolo’s project is more than a meditation on memory. It’s also an investigation of Mississippian cultural identity. Giampaolo sought to represent, faithfully, the working-class white community she grew up with – even when members of that same community put forth views that she found troubling. Her documentary attempts to portray her subjects in a nuanced way that avoids falling into stereotype.

Many of the Mississippi residents she interviewed felt resentful that New Orleans – with its majority-black population – dominated media coverage of Katrina. “In one sentence they’d say: if the media hadn’t focused on New Orleans, we might have gotten help sooner,” Giampaolo said. “In another sentence, they’d say, I hate that people think they need the government. But they accepted government aid, and they don’t think they got enough aid – they wanted more.”

Giampaolo’s deft handling of the racial and cultural issues her film covers won her praise from her professors.

“What Mandy has set out to do is particularly challenging,” assistant professor of media studies Jennifer Petersen said. “She has a number of abstract and intellectual ideas that she wants to address in audio-visual form: about documentary, in particular ideas about authenticity and truth in documentary film; about race; and about the way that the South is and is not visible in mainstream media.”

Petersen, who advised Giampaolo’s project along with Taylor Professor of Media Studies Bruce Williams, said that the documentary attempts to make an argument “with images and the words of others rather than with the topic sentences, paragraphs and subheadings of the traditional academic paper.”

Anna Brickhouse, an associate professor in the Department of English who also teaches in American studies, lauded Giampaolo’s ability to move seamlessly between academic disciplines and modes of expression.

“She’s just an exemplary interdisciplinary thinker and always sees that there is more than one way to answer a question or approach a problem,” Brickhouse said. “She is capable of communicating beautifully in many ways. She’s passionate about truth-telling and aesthetic choices.”

Giampaolo said she plans to continue her work in film after graduation. She hopes to go to film school and ultimately work as a professor. And her project on Katrina has led her in a direction she had previously dismissed: documentary film.

“I always thought of documentary as kind of a restrictive field, with less artistic agency as a filmmaker,” she said. “But making this film I realized that’s not true – there’s so much artistic agency that you have. I love that it makes you interact with the world, and I think that’s what makes film so interesting overall. It reflects this thing that exists outside of the film, that’s in the real world.”

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