[18 September 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Survival is instinctual. It goes to our very nature as life loving beings. It can be mistaken for desperation or arrogance, but the need to stay alive usually trumps all other basic necessities. When Hurricane Katrina flared up in the Gulf of Mexico, moving from minor storm to an Armageddon like presence preparing to devastate New Orleans, the rest of America looked on with disdain. From the settled suburbanite to the doofus President they reelected, no one really cared if the levees would hold, if city services would respond, or if anyone was left behind. But for Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott, there was no option. There was no leaving or getting to safer shelter. All they had was themselves, their extended family, and their will to survive. They also had a camcorder.
Trouble the Water, the new documentary from Fahrenheit 9/11 producers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, takes the amazing footage shot by Kim during the Hell on Earth that was Katrina, and after catching up with the couple a few weeks later, follows their attempts to rebuild their lives. They briefly return to New Orleans, only to find homes containing corpses that the National Guard has failed to ID and tag. They talk about their attempts to seek refuge in a nearly empty Naval base, only to be turned away by the officers on duty (Bush later gives them a commendation for this). But mostly, they seek out the solace of friends and family, trying to make sense of a situation that saw them struggling one day, completely divested of the standards of human existence the next.
Thanks to the sensational material shot by the Roberts (Kim is quite the self-promoter, seeing herself as a future Ms. Rap Supreme) and the juxtaposition of the now familiar flailing that was the Federal response to the disaster, Trouble becomes an unlikely cinematic ally to Spike Lee’s near definitive When the Levees Broke. Unlike said four hour epic, however, this movie wants to shrink the story down to its most elemental aspects. It was people, not generic populations that were uprooted when a poorly designed infrastructure failed New Orleans. We get to meet the heroes and unintentional villains, the destitute and the resolute, each group groping for a way to endure the wrath of a blind Mother Nature and a disinterested nation.
This theme runs throughout Trouble. The Roberts, after being rejected by the Navy, end up at a local high school. Coming back to it later, the soldiers stationed there jokingly complain about the hygiene and cleanliness of their “guest” refugees. As our lead couple and their traveling companion Brian thank the military for their presence and assistance, you can see that lack of caring in the officer’s eyes. When they finally travel up North, they find limited opportunities (and even less cooperation from FEMA). Even in Memphis, the place where they intend to “start fresh”, they appear lost. It’s not because they don’t want to make it. But after a previous stint as admitted drug dealers - Kim delivers a devastating rap on the subject towards the end of the film - their fringe lifestyle hasn’t prepared them for such a seismic shift.
That’s why we aren’t surprised by what happens next. All throughout Trouble, we hear the survivors vehemently stating their hatred for New Orleans, the various officials involved in the Katrina debacle, and their desire never to return. So of course, Kim and Scott are back, looking over their lost neighborhood while celebrating the fact that many of their friends have also had a change of heart. It doesn’t make the devastation any easier, and when Scott suddenly finds himself employed and happy, we wonder what will happen next. Oddly enough, Trouble the Water decides not to pursue such a path. Instead, it wants to be the reality version of those “found footage” films where events are seen through the lens of an actual participant ala The Blair Witch Project/Cloverfield.
More importantly, the decision by Lessin and Deal to dump their previous Katrina concept to attach themselves to the Roberts resonates with the authenticity of the subject they were facing. Trouble is at its least effective when newscasts show Bush pandering to the base or former FEMA failure Michael Brown choking on administration addled soundbites. By picking up on this personal story and serving it up in a way that plays commentator, not critic, the filmmakers allows Kim and Scott to speak for themselves. The results are astoundingly brutal and beautifully honest. As a culture, the African American community in the United States (horribly marginalized up until a mere four decades ago, in case you’ve forgotten) has carved out a means of making connections that their Caucasian counterparts can’t even begin to claim. Homeless and haggard, the Roberts consistently find as much Christian charity as they gave to those who needed it.
Perhaps this is the greatest lesson of this superbly realized and heartbreaking film - that people will pull together to help each other even if there are issues between them. Scott suggests that Brian (who we learn is an ex-addict living in a halfway house before Katrina) is now his brother. Another man who made it his cause to carry complete strangers to higher ground on a floating exercise bag gets labeled a ‘hero’. Both descriptions are dead on. Through the eyes of these people who had nothing to start with, who struggled to make a place in a country who still consider them second class citizens, the truth is instantly revealed. Enemies become allies. The generous become the stuff of myth.
Had this story been told through some manner of reenactment (or, God forbid, a hackneyed Hollywood depiction), had we not been able to see the rising waters washing away everything the Roberts owned with our own eyes (the sight of their second story bedroom filled with flooding remains unsettling), we’d never have believed the events depicted in Trouble the Water. In fact, most of America would like to think that Katrina is a cause long battled and conquered. Naturally, nothing could be further from the truth. One imagines as Bush and his lame duck cronies make sure everything in Texas is post-Ike A-OK that the people of New Orleans are still smarting. Where there are people like the Roberts, however, there remains hope. That’s the essence of survival. It’s the instinct of all human beings.