With most of us only recently returned from the Hurricane Gustav evacuation, this is not the most propitious time to be talking about a Hurricane Katrina documentary. If you are like me, you've had just about enough hurricanes for the rest of your life. So it's a shame of timing that our city is about to see the release of an extraordinary film absolutely guaranteed to rip open whatever psychic Katrina wounds have managed to heal.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year, Trouble the Water is a prime example of found art. Filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, who worked with Michael Moore on Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, came to New Orleans a week after Hurricane Katrina to make a documentary about the National Guard. That project foundered almost immediately when Guard commanders refused to grant access. Deal and Lessin then journeyed to Alexandria to interview Katrina evacuees who were living in central Louisiana shelters. There they met Kimberly Rivers Roberts, an aspiring rap singer, and her husband Scott, and there, they literally found their movie.
When the professional filmmakers revealed to the Robertses that they were making a documentary about Katrina, Kim responded in her typically optimistic way that she'd already made a documentary about Katrina and that she had footage that no camera crew from any news network could approach. This was not an idle boast. Kim and Scott were impoverished Ninth Ward residents without an automobile. Since the city provided no transportation plan to evacuate persons such as the Robertses, Kim and Scott had no recourse but to try to ride out the storm. They chose to do so at their home on France Street.
On a lark, it seems, Kim bought a personal camcorder "on the street" shortly before the storm and decided to capture footage of her neighbors as they made their Katrina preparations. Some had the resources to evacuate and shared tears and hugs with Kim before they left. Others could not leave, and Kim videos them buying food, flashlights, batteries and ice and stocking their homes ahead of the winds and rain. This footage, generated by an untrained filmmaker, grainy, jerky and raw as it is, nonetheless comprises a powerful rendering of community in a neighborhood that has not yet and may never entirely recover from what was about to happen.
Saving her batteries as best she could, Kim continued to film as the wind began to howl, the neighbors retreated inside and the water rushing through burst levees began to rise. She has an incredible sequence where she and Scott stand on their front porch, water lapping at their shoes, taking counsel from a man on the porch next door about how to survive in an attic. She also filmed a neighbor, Larry Sims, providing heroic rescues at a time when no official entity would brave the storm to do it. Ultimately, she filmed Scott, herself, their dog Babe, and several neighbors to whom they offered shelter, hunkered down in their attic with their diminishing supplies.
Trouble the Water takes its title from an incredibly powerful song that Kim subsequently wrote. And the film the cameras finally being handled by Deal and Tassin's professional crew follows the Robertses and several other people as they try to navigate the labyrinthine federal and state bureaucracies that, as far too many of us know first hand, seemed designed to frustrate rather than help people. For instance, a friend the Robertses made after Katrina, Brian Nobles, a recovering addict who was living in a church group home when the hurricane struck, was ruled ineligible for aid because he lacked a certifiable address.
Trouble the Water revisits some of our common nightmares, including President Bush's statement that no one realized the levees could collapse, the incredible failure of all levels of government to get rescue vehicles or even food and water into the city for days after the storm. It also reveals an infuriating incident I hadn't known. Walking through thigh-deep water, pushing children and the elderly in a boat, Scott, Kim and Larry tried to relocate their neighbors from their own flooded street to a U.S. naval installation 10 blocks away. They were turned away at gunpoint, and the officers who threatened desperate, unarmed people were given commendations by the same President Bush who so mismanaged the entire crisis.
Hurricane fatigued as I am, I didn't want to see this movie. But I am glad I did, and in the way the film makes possible, I am glad to meet Kim and Scott Roberts and to witness the incredible example of their generous lust for life.
- 2008 Louverture Films
- Kimberly and Scott Roberts in front of their Ninth Ward home, where they survived flooding from the levee breach just blocks away.