New Orleans natives Kimberly and Scott Roberts wound up in their attic during Hurricane Katrina. Unable to leave the city, the husband and wife holed up in their Lower Ninth Ward home with a little food, several neighbors and a hi-8 camcorder. They rolled tape from the day before Katrina hit until shortly after it left, shooting until their battery ran out.
Filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal got their hands on the raw footage and hooked up with the Roberts family immediately after Katrina, shooting footage of their own. The result is a gripping hour and a half as "Trouble the Water," now playing in select cities, cuts back and forth between the homemade hurricane tape and Lessin and Deal's footage of Kimberly and Scott trying to refocus their lives.
"Trouble the Water," which takes its name from an old spiritual "Wade in the Water," won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and it's easy to see why. Lessin and Deal, thanks to their subjects, fashion a Katrina chronicle at once heartbreaking, inspiring, embarrassing and maddening.
"Trouble" combines the homemade record of Katrina not only with Lessin and Deal's tag-along footage in the days and weeks immediately following, but it also imports news clips that seem silly and woefully inadequate to convey what really went down in the Crescent City. Some of these polished and glitzy presentations of tragedy just hurt.
And then there's Mike Brown, FEMA director and whipping boy for all who would comment, appearing on TV saying that President Bush was pleased with FEMA's efforts. And there's New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, holding a press conference 19 hours before Katrina made landfall and telling citizens to get out of town. A title card tells us no public transportation system was in place for that.
Lessin and Deal have produced some of Michael Moore's films, including "Bowling for Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11," so it should come as no surprise to see them cut from Kimberly and Scott stuffed in their wet attic to President Bush speaking at a country club in Arizona, telling cameras and assuring Americans that the U.S. government has assets and resources to help the people of New Orleans.
With New Orleans' seams bursting and help hard to find, they cut to the Louisiana National Guard stuck in Iraq on patrol. And a year after Katrina, after showing us the Lower Ninth Ward still in shambles, they cut to a giddy representative of the New Orleans tourism office touting its promotional DVD that makes New Orleans look like the New Jerusalem.
This brand of "editorial edit" is a hallmark of the Michael Moore approach, and it may not be entirely fair. A juxtaposition between shots is what makes a film work and construct any meaning at all. The juxtapositions here do tell a truth, but not the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
In the case of the tourism representative, the untruth that flows from that sort of editing is that New Orleans' tourism office has no place in a post-Katrina world. The truth is that New Orleans may be open for business, but blocks away people are still worse off than they were before Katrina. There is a more responsible way to make this point, and one that is probably fairer to the tourism official.
Some of the homemade footage shows the Roberts' neighborhood before the hurricane hit, revealing a Lower Ninth Ward already pounded by poverty and substance abuse, even as community thrived in ways perhaps unknown to many of the rest of us. As the hurricane rolls in, Kimberly nudges a neighbor who's passed out on some front-porch steps. She tells him to get up and get moving, that there's a hurricane coming. He literally stumbles off down the street.
The Roberts' footage thus serves not only as a genuine firsthand account of a human response to natural disaster, but it shows us the dire condition of their neighborhood before levees broke three blocks away. Two weeks after Katrina, when Kimberly and Scott head back to New Orleans with the filmmaking crew, Scott remarks in anticipation of seeing their neighborhood, "It won't be much of a difference."
Kimberly and Scott survey the damage, but Kimberly rejoices that a picture of her mother, who died a decade earlier of AIDS, still hung, though shriveled, on the wall. Her death figured in Kimberly's later drug dealing as a means of support, which Kimberly said pains her because her mother herself was addicted to cocaine.
Kimberly recounts her past in one of the film's more mesmerizing scenes. In it, she raps what is essentially an R-rated psalm. It has highs, lows, observations and truth claims. "I wrote that when I was depressed," she says. "I wanted to write a happy song, and that's what came up."
Kimberly and Scott—and their friend, Brian, who travels with them during their displacement—are definitely in the water in this film. They're looking for Jordan, and sometimes it seems that the closest they'll get is a delayed check from FEMA for $2,000.
Kimberly and Scott aren't the only compelling characters in "Trouble." Brian has his own forceful narrative, believing in a better life beyond Louisiana and relying on the fact that he serves "a true and living God." When Kimberly senses Brian is down and seeks a scripture for everyone's encouragement, he finally relents: "Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength," he says.
If that's true, are the rest of us involved in that process? Only if we wade in the water.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: Unrated.
Reviewer's Note: A fair amount of bad language, and a shot of a decaying dog.
Directors: Tia Lessin and Carl Deal Cast: Kimberly Rivers Roberts; Scott Roberts; Brian Nobles.
The movie's official Web site is here.
Resource link: DVD: "Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism"