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Originally published Friday, August 22, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"The Church on Dauphine Street": Rebuilding after Katrina on a foundation of compassion

Seattle-based filmmakers Anne Hedreen and Rustin Thompson present the true story of a group of volunteers who helped rebuild a New Orleans church after Hurricane Katrina in the moving, poetic film, "The Church on Dauphine Street."

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

"The Church on Dauphine Street, " a documentary directed by Ann Hedreen and Rustin Thompson. 83 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Grand Illusion, through Thursday.

A shortened one-hour version of this film will air at 9 p.m. Tuesday and 7 p.m. Aug. 29 on KCTS-TV. Visit www.onekatrinafilm.com for more details and DVD availability.

Seattle-based filmmakers Anne Hedreen and Rustin Thompson describe their nonfiction style as "cinematic journalism," an approach to documentary filmmaking "that combines factual objectivity and personal commentary within a poetic, impressionistic structure."

That's a perfectly accurate description of their latest film, "The Church on Dauphine Street," which follows a team of construction volunteers from Seattle (and other cities) as they rebuild a vital church and community center in storm-ravaged New Orleans. Covering a period from Hurricane Katrina's deadly strike in late August 2005 to December of 2006, Hedreen and Thompson open with a credit sequence that poetically hints at the force of Katrina and its devastating aftermath. Symbolic trickles of water cross the screen, carrying with them the personal artifacts that will gain greater significance as the film unfolds.

It's an image of flood and loss, but "The Church on Dauphine Street" is about survival and hope in the midst of diligent reconstruction. It's about life returning from a state of rancid, mud-caked lifelessness. It's about spiritual and physical revival, and as one Katrina survivor observes, "It's not about you, it's about others. Tragedy teaches you that."

Hedreen produced, wrote and narrated the film while Thompson (her husband) shot and edited the visuals and arranged the music, with their son Nick as a close collaborator. The result is their best, most emotionally moving film to date, benefiting from the experience of making acclaimed documentaries like "The Quick Brown Fox: An Alzheimer's Story" and "30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle."

With humanitarian focus, the film covers a lot of inspiring territory in 83 minutes (edited to one hour for upcoming PBS broadcasts). The once-flooded Upper 9th Ward of New Orleans is where we find Irish-American Father Joe Benson, tending to a unique and traumatized flock of deaf and multicultural parishioners at the Francis X. Seelos Parish Catholic Church.

With his "second-in-command" Arthine Vicks (a Marine ex-sergeant and sign-language liaison between deaf and hearing parishioners), Father Joe watches in amazement as Mercer Island volunteer Jack vanHartesvelt leads a team of volunteers in rebuilding the church. Union workers all, they're joined by several local volunteers like plumber Dana Colombo, whose house was ruined by a 30-foot wall of water at the peak of Katrina's fury.

"I'm not a big fan of our president," says Colombo. "I deal in facts." And while many Seelos parishioners remain understandably cynical about the Bush administration (prompting one to observe, "FEMA caused us more heartache than Katrina itself"), "The Church on Dauphine Street" holds politics in check. Thompson's well-chosen images of mind-boggling destruction lend valuable perspective to the glorious reconstruction that follows — a tribute to the openhearted generosity of those who achieved what our government could not.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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