Today is the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and with the memoirs and films of the wreckage left after the natural destruction and human mismanagement comes the documentary Trouble The Water. It stands out from previous films about Katrina because it includes first-person footage shot by a woman and her husband who were living in the Ninth Ward when the hurricane hit. That woman is Kimberly Rivers Roberts, an aspiring rapper and self-proclaimed small-time hustler, who bought the camcorder that would document her experience during Katrina a week before the storm touched down. After the storm, she teamed up with documentary filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal to get her personal account out there...and made herself one hell of a movie. The glowing reviews, after the jump.Entertainment Weekly:
What divine inspiration moved Kimberly Rivers Roberts, an aspiring rap artist and toweringly self-possessed woman from New Orleans' Ninth Ward, to grab her Hi8 camcorder and document the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina as it smashed up her neighborhood? And what grace brought Roberts to the attention of Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, filmmakers who, like so many others, went to Louisiana after the levees broke? Whatever the cosmic luck, the result, Trouble the Water, is essential, unique viewing: a stunning experience of the hurricane and its aftermath, rooted in immediate personal response and emotions that encapsulate the full national catastrophe.
Shot predominantly from the attic of their rapidly submerging house during the worst of the storm, Roberts' visual record gives us a palpable sense of impending doom. But it's only after the Robertses - in the company of filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal - return to their battered city their crime-ridden neighborhood that the true, sustained and still-unresolved damage of Katrina becomes so terribly clear.
If possible, Roberts' movie-within-a-movie is even more amazing than it sounds. She captures a tale of courage, heroism and tragedy more thrilling than any Hollywood spectacle; one neighbor, a man Roberts and her husband, Scott, hadn't even liked before the hurricane, risks his life to save them, swimming back and forth across the street using a punching bag as a flotation device. Roberts barely knew how to turn the camera on when the storm started, and her footage is highly uneven. But you can feel her taking ownership of the situation as the catastrophe worsens, doing her own TV-news-style voice- over and alternating between establishing shots and close-ups.
Kim Roberts' footage, shot with a video camera she'd bought on the street for $20 only the week before, gives a rare from-the-ground-up look at what it's like to be flooded out of your house. We watch in hypnotized horror as the waters rise so high they almost obliterate the corner stop sign, forcing the Roberts and their extended family to take precarious refuge in their attic. Startling as that footage is, however, it takes up only about 15 minutes of "Trouble the Water." The documentary's best asset is not what Kim shot, but the woman herself. With her buoyant, naturally dramatic personality (she ended up giving birth to a daughter in Utah just days before the Sundance award ceremony), bold, nervy Kim has the kind of intensely charismatic spirit documentary directors dream about. With her as our guide, "Trouble the Water" looks at the reality of New Orleans from the inside.
Using mostly amateur video shot by an aspiring rap artist and her husband in the lead-up to Hurricane Katrina and in the weeks after, this gripping, sometimes unstructured doc shows the devastation New Orleans residents suffered in the swirl of the storm. Filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal utilize the footage Kim and Scott Roberts had taken throughout the disaster, showing how residents suffered, survived and came together to help when official assistance let them down. Kim especially emerges as a real voice of America, one that refuses to keep quiet about the horrors she saw.
As "Trouble the Water" points out, most of New Orleans' black residents have yet to return to a city that turned its back on them. When Kimberly sings, she gives voice to their pain.
Trouble The Water is infuriating in its depiction of helpless Americans getting left behind, and uplifting in the way it shows the Roberts putting their lives together, but it's also frustrating, because it lacks some focus. It starts off being about the footage Kim shot, but she didn't shoot a lot, and anyone coming to Trouble The Water looking for an insider's take on the storm and its immediate aftermath will be disappointed to find that the bulk of the film takes place post-emergency. Even more bothersome is how Lessin and Deal keep steering away from the most persistently unsettling part of the Hurricane Katrina story, having to do with the multiple ways the rights of American citizens were taken away, by the suspicious and the well-meaning alike. Given that the filmmakers' original idea for their project stalled out due to lack of access, it's disappointing that they didn't explore that angle more. Even the generally upbeat Roberts and their friends note the promises and lies that have been exposed by their predicament. "Freedom exists," one of their neighbors says. "There's just… limitations on the freedom."
The first and most gripping half of Trouble the Water, directed by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, is essentially a first-person disaster movie-history captured in the visual grammar of Cloverfield. Driven just to get it down ("I'll be able to tell the story"), Kimberly aims her palm-sized camera at her backyard, at the neighbor passed out on his porch, at the kids laughing off the storm warnings in the street. A dog whimpers, an Army truck creeps by, the sky fades to gray, a drizzle begins. Those cunning directors who've turned shaky-cam mock-vérité into a horror-movie cliché waste a lot of effort planting such "stray" details; they don't have the thing that gives Kimberly's footage its eerie force-genuine uncertainty about what's going to happen.
As someone of bounteous hope but little (formal) faith, I found Kimberly's religious ejaculations a bit trying. She and her husband trek north to a relative's house in which there's no water, and when a man shows up to turn it on, she exclaims, "When you trust in God, he sends miracles your way!" Five minutes later, the man returns, now ordered to shut the water off, and this time God goes pointedly unmentioned. But I admit that my perspective is that of a privileged New Yorker who has never had to summon comparable spiritual resources. Whatever sparked and has sustained Kimberly's resolve is indeed a kind of miracle. The rap that she performs for the camera, "Amazing," is just that, an explicit (and profane) account of her sordid past capped with an irresistibly upbeat refrain-a potential smash. That faith brings her and her husband back to New Orleans despite continued government neglect-even as New Orleans pours its resources into luring tourists back to the French Quarter. In one scene, Kimberly and fellow refugees line up for FEMA assistance at some kind of ranch, where a sign overhead points to Gate B-CATTLE ENTRANCE. You can't make this stuff up. You can, however, capture it on film for all time. Trouble the Water is ineradicably moving.
Kimberly's star power comes from the music she writes and sings, music that was almost lost in the storm. The moment in the aftermath when she finds it and raps about her feelings will knock you off your feet. At the Sundance Film Festival in January, when the film premiered, that moment got audiences standing and cheering. Never mind Katrina, Kimberly Roberts is the real force of nature. Despite the political incompetence that continues to devastate New Orleans, Kimberly and Scott went home with only positive vibes. The repair needed in their city has gotten Scott a job in construction. And Kimberly's music has attracted producers. No wonder, a glory abides in this woman's voice. "Inspiring" is an overused word in the movie business. But it fits here. Lessin and Deal have made Trouble the Water a spellbinder you do not want to miss.
'Trouble The Water' opened on August 22nd in selected theaters in Los Angeles and New York.
Earlier: Hurrican Katrina, Three Years Later: A New Memoir And An Approaching Storm [Jezebel]