Friday, April 24, 2009
Trouble the Water is one of the most powerful documentaries I've seen in a long time. It deservingly won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year, and is now getting a broadcast run on HBO (I watched it last night). Watch it On Demand, rent it (when it comes out), do what you have to do, but don't miss it.
Through a combination of professional and amateur camera work, the film follows New Orleans 9th Ward residents Kimberly Roberts and her husband Scott as they experience Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The amateur camera work comes from Roberts herself, a 24-year-old dynamo whose restless mind gives way to running commentary on the plight of her neighborhood, her street-tough history, and motivational speak meant to bolster her reserves in the face of institutional abandonment at every turn. Roberts takes her camera into the streets as the hurricane builds and continues to shoot the rising floodwaters. Eventually, she and her family wait it out in her attic, confident the authorities will rescue them (they never do). The result of Roberts' roaming camera is an intimate, suspenseful experience that makes all those windblown reporters covering the hurricane look even sillier (Imagine!).
Directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine) must have been astonished to see the footage after Roberts approached them in a Red Cross shelter offering up her testimonial camera. Lessin and Deal decided to follow Kimberly and Scott as they try to rebuild their lives. I can see why. These two are likeable and well-meaning. Kimberly is an aspiring rapper - a cliché, I know, but she needs something to contain all her natural charisma (she turns out to be pretty decent, though her moniker is unfortunate: Black Kold Medina).
Both Kimberly and Scott see the total destruction of their home as an opportunity to start fresh, to leave the life of drug dealing and street-life behind. They try to navigate FEMA and abandon New Orleans proclaiming to never go back. Of course, they eventually do go back, because mobility is not an easy thing when you're poor and the job prospects are few. Lessin and Deal do an amazing job editing the film into an unsentimental story of a determined couple trying to survive without any kind of safety net. The tag line for this film is: "It's not about a hurricane, it's about America." Generally these tag lines are silly, created to serve the publicity machine. This one, however, is so very true.
For more on Trouble the Water, read KPBS film critic Beth Accomando's review on Cinema Junkie.