Forced Change, a documentary by filmmaker Rennik Soholt, highlights the intimate stories of people who left New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and never returned. Filmed throughout the course of fourteen years, Soholt interviews four people, all of whom he’d known personally before he made the film, about their choice not to return to the city they loved. Interviewees describe having struggled with relationships and substance abuse after the devastation of the storm. They also recount the challenges of finding new homes and of returning to city to find remnants of destroyed properties.
Soholt lived in New Orleans before moving to New York City in 2002. After New Orleans reopened in October of 2005, he returned several times over a period of years, as well as traveled to Texas, to document the struggles of his friends. After that, Soholt returned multiple times throughout the next few years, as well as traveling to Texas, documenting the lives of those who left. In November 2019, the film debuted at the Big Apple Film Festival, where it was awarded Best Documentary Film. It continued to screen throughout the Pandemic at various virtual film festivals.
I spoke to Soholt about his connection to the city of New Orleans. We also discussed how he chose his subjects for Forced Change and what he hopes viewers will take from the film.
Risa Sarachan: What was the process of creating this documentary? How many years did it take to film?
Rennik Soholt: The documentary began because I was watching the news after Hurricane Katrina hit. I had moved from New Orleans to New York City a few years before, so of course, I knew people who were there. This was before social media, and you couldn’t call anyone in Louisiana because the towers were down. But text messaging worked. Massive amounts of texts were sent by anyone who was looking for people. “Where’s so-and-so? Have you seen so-and-so?”
After a few weeks of anxious waiting, I found out that most of the people I cared for were safe or at least alive. Still, I just knew I had to go to New Orleans in person. I can’t explain it, I just knew I had to go. I rented a camera package from one of my bosses, TV Producer Brent Montgomery (this was right when Pawn Stars was taking off and Leftfield Pictures was really just beginning), and between shoots on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, I rented a car and drove from New York City to New Orleans and began filming.
The first day I filmed, was with Janna, who lived near the 17th Street Canal, which had completely collapsed. Her house was a mess! Water had reached up to the ceiling. It was crazy to see. Right then, I knew this was a story that needed to be told. While in New Orleans, I stayed with a friend whose uptown apartment was near the Mississippi River and had not been flooded or lost power. I spent almost two weeks filming the flooded areas: dirt, muck, hazmat gear, people who experienced loss all day. Then I’d come back uptown to air conditioning and cable in the same city. It was surreal.
This journey I started then lasted 17 years.
Sarachan: Can you talk about your personal connection with New Orleans?
Soholt: I moved to New Orleans to get my MSW (Masters in Social Work) at Tulane University in 2000. I dropped out after two months because I felt like I had made a mistake. All I wanted to do was to make documentaries. I ended up working as a server at the House of Blues where I eventually met all my friends. At the same time, I took classes at the local city college. After a couple of years I moved to New York City to try my hand at the entertainment business.
New York City has the largest documentary community in the world, and I wanted to be there. I had met every character in the film (Janna, Marcus, Lorne & Chris) at the House of Blues. When I began making the film, I wanted to make something that New Orleanians would be proud of. My friends and I had always joked that films set in New Orleans were often lame caricatures. So I wanted to make a film for locals. I was only a local for a short amount of time, but my heart was always there. I hope that comes across in the film.
Sarachan: Where were you when Katrina hit? What are your memories from that time?
Soholt: I was in New York City, working mostly on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. I lived in East Harlem and worked in SoHo. I was glued to the television for days. I was also texting like mad, trying to make sure everyone I knew was okay.
I had friends who had stayed in New Orleans for a hurricane party, and I was communicating with my friend Jared who was telling me how the city was filling up with water. No one knew what was going on. It was scary. I also felt as if after a week, no one in New York City was talking about Hurricane Katrina anymore. But I was still looking for friends who had gone to Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, some to other parts of the country. It was a frightful time and I felt very connected to the city the entire time.
Sarachan: How did you find the diverse group of subjects in the film?
Soholt: I started calling people I knew when I got to New Orleans in Oct 2005 and met them at their homes with my video camera. I put a mic on each person and followed them into their homes to see what was there. At first, I filmed with close to 12 people. Everyone had differing levels of loss and a story to tell. Today I would probably cast it, but I wanted to tell everyone’s story. I knew how to plan a shoot in Ghana for Bourdain, but not how to tell a varied group of stories that told a larger story, in real time. It was a huge learning process. I think the film has an intimacy it could never have had if everyone had been cast to play a part. These were people I knew. I mean, I would interview someone, and then we’d have dinner and I’d crash on their couch. It’s hard to make a film with people you know, but the wall that people usually put up with documentarians wasn’t there for the most part.
Sarachan: What did you learn from creating the film?
Soholt: I learned how to make a feature documentary. I never went to film school, so Forced Change is my film school. I really learned how to re-order reality to tell a larger story. I had already worked in television when I started the film, but I had learned, through television, how to lay out a journey, with a host. Not like in a feature where I learned to find meaning in small moments and to create a structured narrative. Television is much faster and more throw away. You can’t take as many chances. I love television for its quick turnaround, and it pays the bills, but making a feature documentary can really help you learn structure, pacing, intercutting, timeline shifting. All of these things are tools I now have to work with in my storytelling.
Sarachan: What do you look for when taking on new work?
Soholt: The older I get, the more I look for something that I’m interested in. When I was younger, I’d just take work, and was happy to be getting paid for being creative, even if I wasn’t into the material. But that has become harder and harder, so finding something that will sustain my interest is very important.
Another important component, at least in regard to independent work, is accessibility and fundability. I need something that I have access to, or can get access to. So much about documentary filmmaking is about access. And also, something that has become important is that there is a market for the material. I don’t follow the market and don’t have tastes that are super commercial, but it’s important for me that the work gets seen in some niche capacity.
I’d love to do another story attacking the issue of people being displaced due to the effects of global warming. I’m originally from California, so I’ve wanted to do something connected to the fires out there. But there are lots of stories in which our worlds are being disrupted due to the changing climate, without looking directly at climate science, which is too on the nose for me. I have been working with some academics looking for the right story. But currently, I am working on a documentary series on social impact design. Design is a love of mine and I’ve always been attracted to the way documentaries can bring social impact. So it’s a good balance of ideas for me and there really are people trying to change the world. We are partnering with the UN, developing stories and trying to show how people utilize design thinking and techniques to help solve the planet’s biggest problems. We’re hoping to get it out next year.
I’m also still in the food Television world (after years of trying to get away from it, I found the passion in cooking), and so I am pitching a food/social justice series. We’ll see. I just want to keep learning.
Sarachan: What do you hope viewers take from Forced Change?
Soholt: I want people to understand that people all over the world will be displaced due to global warming, whether we are talking about rising seas, larger storms or bigger fires. Just understanding that impending reality, so we, as a society, can begin to prepare for that inevitability, is important to me. Also, I want people to understand a little bit about trauma and how it can affect us, even years after the traumatic event. And I want people to love New Orleans, because though it’s about people moving away from the city, it’s a bit of a love letter to New Orleans.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Forced Change is now available on Apple TV, iTunes and Amazon.