Trouble the Water
If you missed the exhaustively, deservedly lauded Trouble the Water in theaters last year, now you can catch it on the small screen. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature (it lost to Man on Wire), Trouble the Water follows New Orleans residents Kimberly "Kim" Rivers Roberts and Scott Roberts from the day Katrina makes landfall to a year and a half afterward, when Kim and Scott have moved back to the city.
Kim’s video footage of her neighborhood just before and during the storm, shot on a Hi-8 camcorder, provides the anchor for the beginning of the film. The dramatic arc of the storm’s landfall is witnessed by the viewer through the eyes of a resident in its path: talking with the neighbors under a blue sky; sheltering from sheets of rain on the porch; watching the water come up to the back door; watching from the attic as the water comes in through the windows; sharing fruit juice and food with neighbors in the attic; and shouting out an attic window to a neighbor swimming through stop-sign-high water, who’s using a punching bag as a flotation device to help ferry neighbors to higher ground. A clip of footage shot from a helicopter at the time of the storm is spliced in, showing the overwhelmed levees of the Ninth Ward, three blocks away from Kim and Scott’s house.
The vintage news coverage interwoven throughout the film provides a contextualizing counterpoint to Kim and Scott’s story as they assume places in front of the camera; simultaneously, their story works as a powerful antidote to the coverage of the hurricane as seen from above, lorded over by pundits. The viewer hears the story of the storm, and the story of a city chronically afflicted by poverty cheek by jowl with its chipper tourist industry, from those who have lived it.
The viewer follows Kim partway into an uninspected house in which there lies the body of one of her neighbors, two weeks after the storm, while outside National Guardsmen appear to loll in the street. The viewer hears Scott tell the story of being directed to a nearby Naval base by the Coast Guard to seek shelter for displaced neighborhood residents; once there, guards cocked their guns at the crowd. (The viewer then witnesses guards at the Naval base, being interviewed, deny this.)
Throughout the film, Kim comes across as a confident woman and leader, and Scott as a loving and supportive husband unthreatened by her strength. This would be a refreshing depiction in any film, but is especially remarkable given the extreme circumstances under which Kim and Scott share their story with the filmmakers. In an interview with Richard Roeper included in the DVD, director Tia Lessin says, “You’re looking up at [Kim and Scott] most of the film, which I think is beautiful, because that’s not how the media portrays people… metaphorically, we really tried to make a film that looked up to Kimberly and Scott.” Certainly, they’ve succeeded.