Originally, Brooklyn-based filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin thought they’d make a post-Katrina documentary about Louisiana National Guardsmen struggling to provide disaster relief.
“After a few days of filming, one of their officers cut off our access,” recalled Deal. “He said ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ messed it up for the rest of you filmmakers. We didn’t tell him that we were producers on ‘Fahrenheit 9/11.’”
Trouble the Water
Tia Lessin, Carl Deal
Kimberly Roberts, Scott Roberts, Brian Nobles, Jerome Baham, Kendall "Wink" Rivers, Larry Simms
(Zeitgeist Films; US theatrical: 22 Aug 2008 (Limited release); 2008)
Deal was talking to hurricane survivors at a Red Cross station in Alexandria, La., when he was approached by a young married couple who had escaped New Orleans. Kimberly and Scott Roberts had been trapped for several days by floodwaters in their Lower 9th Ward neighborhood. What’s more, Kimberly had recorded their harrowing experiences with a video camera she’d bought on the street only days earlier for $20.
Almost immediately Deal and Lessin realized they’d found a new subject for their film.
“She allowed us to tell the story of Katrina from the inside,” Deal said.
“Trouble the Water” was a hit at Sundance earlier this year.
“Kimberly is wiser than her age,” Lessin said. “She was only 24 when we met her. But she is a natural performer. Very charismatic, very thoughtful. Incredibly strong. She doesn’t have time to worry about the fact that life isn’t fair. She’s out there living it, and she’s going to make the best decisions she can.”
Like 100,000 of their fellow citizens, the couple didn’t have the means to leave the city when a mandatory evacuation was ordered.
“They didn’t have a vehicle or access to one,” Deal said. “This was the big flaw of the evacuation plan. It was based on people using their own cars. If you had a car you drove out. If not, you went to the Superdome or up to your attic.”
At the heart of the documentary is Kimberly Roberts’ footage, which puts audiences directly in the path of the storm. From her attic she filmed the wind whipping, the rain pouring and the waters rising.
Around that core footage, “Trouble the Water” tells how she and a small group of friends and neighbors survived in the days and weeks that followed.
Deal and Lessin drove the Robertses back to New Orleans just days after the waters receded. The couple was reunited with their two dogs, which they had abandoned to the rising waters but had somehow survived. Kimberly’s uncle wasn’t so lucky. She discovered his decomposing body in his house.
Faced with an inadequate government response to the disaster, Kimberly became the leader of the group, taking them to Alexandria, La., where her uncle had a vacant house.
“Kimberly and Scott didn’t fit the profile of the usual hurricane evacuee you see on TV,” Deal said. “They weren’t helpless victims who needed to be rescued by ‘white America.’ They weren’t rampaging criminal looters. They were two ordinary people who survived the storm because they had a history of surviving many other storms in their lives. We learn about those other storms as the film progresses.”
There’s a magical moment late in the film when Kimberly discovers that one of her relatives has a CD of rap songs Kimberly had recorded. She plays her rap “Amazing” on a boom box and gives an impromptu performance for Deal and Lessin’s camera.
“She might have mentioned before that she was a rapper,” Deal said, “but we didn’t pay too much attention. Nowadays everybody claims to be a rapper. But as we filmed her performing we realized just how talented she is. Not only is it an outstanding performance, but she’s also telling us her life story.”
The filmmakers returned to New York with more than 200 hours of footage. But the more they studied what they had, the more they realized that all their talking head interviews with politicians and “experts” were superfluous. The real story was Kimberly and Scott Roberts .
“We didn’t set out to make a film from two individuals’ point of view,” Lessin said. “But we were thrilled that it worked out that way. Once we realized that was our focus, lots of other characters and stories fell away.
“In the end we constructed the story in such a way that it mimics a fiction film. We wanted there to be surprises, reveals. We avoided lots of the usual documentary techniques. We were more interested in letting viewers come up with their own responses.”