After hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal headed south. Shooting at a FEMA assistance center in Alexandria, Louisiana, a couple hundred miles north of New Orleans, they met Scott and Kimberly Roberts, a couple of penniless refugees from the dirt-poor Ninth Ward, who had survived the storm — barely — at their home and then worked their way up to Alexandria.
Like everyone left in New Orleans during the storm, Scott and Kim had an amazing story to tell. But, more than most, they — especially Kim — had a means and drive to do so, and, in Trouble the Water, Lessin and Deal help them out while mostly staying out of the way.
An aspiring rapper (under the moniker Black Kold Madina), the 24-year-old Kim also owned a camcorder, which she used to document the coming of the storm, its full assault, and immediate aftermath. Fifteen minutes of Kim's home-movie footage is interspersed throughout Trouble the Water, most of it in the film's gripping first half. The second half is almost equally driven by Kim's other mode of expression: fierce rap songs that speak of her experience before, during, and after the storm with candor and defiance.
Trouble the Water doesn't surpass Spike Lee's epic and mournful When the Levees Broke as the definitive documentary portrait of this national catastrophe, but it's an intimate companion piece — somehow both more plainspoken and more poetic.
Lessin and Deal deploy damning media footage of New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin and President George Bush early on but don't overdue it: Political anger instead bubbles up from situations largely viewed from ground level.
The foreboding found in early scenes from Kim's camcorder footage is a real version of the creeping dread that fictional films like Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project tried so hard to duplicate. Kim scans her kitchen, noting the bag of charcoal and meat packed down with ice — "stuff to get us through the hurricane. Everybody's scared. Even my dogs are scared."
Later, focusing her lens on neighbors loading up a car to evacuate, Kim's voice, behind the camera, says, "That's okay. I'd be gone too if I had wheels." (This is juxtaposed with a Nagin press conference about the evacuation order. Asked how many people will be left, he responds, "I have no idea. We're hoping everyone will leave." No public transportation was arranged.)
Kim captures the anticipation — and lack thereof — in the neighborhood: guys outside the corner store joking that the police aren't around ("they're worried about the hurricane"); a man passed out on his stoop whom Kim wakes up.
Looking through her camera lens from her Ninth Ward porch as the rain starts to fall and trees start to sway, Kim delivers a monologue: "They put it on the news that we should get out. You got those people that just couldn't leave. Like me. Not because we ain't want to, but because we couldn't afford the luxury. I tried to get a rental. ... But I believe Jesus the Lord will send me through this one. Whenever the Lord allow it, I'll be able to tell the story. August 28, 2005 ... It's me reporting live, Kold Madina."
When we see Kim's footage again, the levees have given way. Opening her screen door, she sees a car almost entirely submerged in the street. A stray voice speaks for everyone: "Damn, you see how high this shit is?" From there it gets surreal: a standing stop sign submerged in water; a neighbor floating by on a punching bag, another in a washtub.
The film retraces the couple's escape (via a john boat that happened to float by) and subsequent journey out of New Orleans with Lessin and Deal: turned away from a military base; sleeping in an empty school; somehow (the film is vague on this point) getting hold of a truck to haul 30 people out of the city.
The first half of film — geared around Kim's own footage — is a riveting first-person disaster movie, one that underscores the resilience of Kim and her Ninth Ward neighbors. (One of my favorite moments is Kim sitting down with a FEMA worker in Alexandria. "Do you always have TV cameras following you?" he asks nervously. "Yeah, usually," she says, shrugging.)
Kim and Scott's odyssey eventually ends up in Memphis ("Go up there and start my music career. Find me a church where I can worship"), where Kim has a cousin who's watched the TV coverage of the disaster in horror. Tearful, the cousin says she won't let her son join the military now. "You're not going to go fight for a country that doesn't care about you," she says.
Unable to find work in Memphis, the couple returns to New Orleans but not, apparently, to their old lives. For Scott, life before Katrina isn't much to be nostalgic about. In Memphis, he talks about not being able to find good work and dealing drugs to get by. "I hated my life down there, you know," he says. "I really did. It was horrible."
A year and a half later, Scott has found work in construction, and Kim is recording her music. They're doing better, but the city is struggling, as a silent driving tour of lingering Ninth Ward devastation attests.
This endless tracking shot of flattened, bombed-out, debris-strewn landscape in the middle of an American city brings back to mind something one of Scott and Kim's neighbors had said to a crew of Louisiana National Guardsmen earlier in the film: "We thank y'all for being in the city of New Orleans, and we pray y'all don't have to go back to Iraq. It's not our war. This is our war right here."
Trouble the Water
Opening Friday, September 26th