We was the seasoning at the bottom of the can that don’t want to shake out.
“Tell your name to the camera,” an offscreen voice instructs. “My name is Scott Michael Roberts,” responds the man filling much of the frame. The camera shifts to take in his wife, who says, “And I’m Kimberly Roberts.” Scott nods. “And this is my wife Kimberly Roberts. We’re from New Orleans, the Ninth Ward, underwater.”
At the start of the exceptional documentary Trouble the Water, premiering tonight on HBO, Scott and Kim make clear their recent, harrowing past. They have arrived at a shelter in Alexandria, Louisiana, just days after the levees broke back home. They’re among many interviewees for documentary makers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, who have come to the flood area to record how victims of Katrina are coping. In this instant, they learn how their film will be transformed. Kim has her own video footage of the storm. “That’s my purpose of living,” she says, “that I could tell people what I been through, man.” But she’s not handing over her footage to just anyone. “I’ve been saving it,” she adds. “But I’m not gonna give it to nobody local, you know, for them to mess around and put on local. This gotta be worldwide.”
A survivor in the most compelling, cagey, and charismatic sense, Kim has her sights set right. And her collaboration with Lessin and Deal reveals not only the terrors of the hurricane but also the political and personal valences of its legendary mismanagement. Like other examples of what Dennis Lim calls “the emerging genre of Hurricane Katrina cinema,” Trouble the Water includes the swirling storm graphics off TV, a damning interview with Mike Brown, and appalling soundbites from George Bush (“When the storm is over, the federal government has got resources that will deployed to help you. In the meantime, America will pray”). It brings to screen a vibrant mini-community of Nola residents, whose acute and often angry analyses of their circumstances put the so-called experts to shame. It also makes Kim and Scott’s experiences its hardcore center, cutting back and forth between the aftermath and the storm (“Two days after the levees fail,” “Four days after the levees fail”), exposing how people lived in impossible conditions, and also how some died, as well as how the lack of official assistance and organization continues to shape possibilities for survivors.
“It’s me, reporting live, Kold Medina,” Kim says, using her professional hip-hop name as she watches water rising high on her street. “We’ll be bringing y’all more footage very shortly: here we go.” The storm footage in Trouble the Water is both unnerving and sadly familiar: other amateur filmmakers sent images to CNN or posted to YouTube their views of the waters, winds, and darkness. Still, Kim’s shots of her family gathered in their attic or the winds raging outside are poignant as well as pointed.
Though she and Scott hear Ray Nagin’s mandatory evacuation order on TV, they can’t leave because their car has recently been stolen. “If I had wheels I’d be gone too,” she tells a neighbor she films packing his car. And then, she asks, “Got weed? I’m gonna try to hold down for the fucking storm.” Both Kim and Scott have dealt drugs. “I was either gonna be in jail or under the ground,” he confesses, “because I was making money the wrong way, I wasn’t doing nothing right.”
Post-Katrina, they dedicate themselves to a “new beginning,” at first in Memphis, where Kim’s cousin lives (“I believe freedom exists somewhere,” Scott says as he prepares to leave Louisiana for the first time in his life, “There’s just limitations on the freedom”) and then back in New Orleans. Their choices are determined repeatedly by external circumstances: the promised FEMA check doesn’t arrive in the mail, Kim’s brother Wink is incarcerated for a misdemeanor. His description of the storm viewed from prison may be the film’s most distressing: “When the guards and everybody left,” he remembers, “We just went crazy.” Trapped and resourceless, the prisoners were “eating paper and toothpaste.”
Wink’s story, accompanied by archival footage of men in orange jumpsuits stranded on a flooded road, is set alongside Kim and Scott’s experiences, as they find Kim’s Uncle Ned, a heroin addict, dead in his home, or walk through the ward in search of assistance. After picking up Ned’s corpse, a young National Guardsman gives Kim the phone number for “Mortuary Affairs, if you guys want the remains of the body that was here.” Shortly after the storm, Kim, Scott, and a “crowd” of survivors arrive at the local Naval Support station, seeking shelter. Alternating between Scott’s account (the guards pulled out and cocked weapons to disperse the survivors) and a Navy officer (“It was a real eerie feeling, I thought, but we had to do our job and that was to protect the interests of the government”), the film indicates the lingering distrust between citizens and authorities.
Other tensions emerge in a comparison of Kim’s raw storm footage and the professional video the city plans to use to promote tourism. A pert white lady representative smiles, “While eighty percent of the city was devastated, that twenty percent where the tourists are, was not.” And so, she concludes, though the advertisement was shot before Katrina (featuring jazz music, happy dancers and dines), she says, “Everything in the DVD is perfect, so we still use it.”
Even as this rejuvenation is planned, however, Kim and Scott walk through their devastated neighborhood with a newfound compatriot and sometime cameraman, Brian Nobles. Living in church-run group home for recovering addicts when the storm hit, Brian speaks for his fellow citizens as he looks out on his future: “I don’t want to let Louisiana play games with my life no more,” he says, part defiant and part defeated. “I don’t wanna trust Mayor Nagin, I don’t wanna trust Blanco, I don’t wanna trust nobody, no official in Louisiana. They failed us once.”
The film offers no easy road to resolution, but instead, detours and annotations, making its overarching argument in ways that are unavoidable but also subtle. Even before the rains start, Kim and her neighbors know they’ll be on their own, observing a cruiser parking down the street, in front of a corner store. “The police ain’t coming, Ôcause they trying to get out the way of the hurricane,” she says. “They going in the store and get their snacks and chips too.” In the Ninth Ward, the lines between legal and outlaw, even moral and immoral acts, are broken long before Katrina comes along. The storm only throws into relief the choices people make, whether it be Kim’s neighbor Larry Simms, who makes repeated trips with a punching bag as a float to move people from their flooded homes, or Scott, using a boat to move people, though he admits later he can’t swim.
As she records these selfless acts, Kim is revealed as a remarkable storyteller, not only in her choice of images and commentary, but also in her rapping. Sad that her just-burned first master CD has been lost in the flood, she is thrilled when a cousin shows up with a dub. “You bumpin’ my CD!” she cheers, as he pulls up, speakers turned way up. And when she begins to perform a track she calls “Amazing,” she shows yet another kind of brilliance. Recounting her mother’s addiction and death from AIDS, and her own very hard knocks, Kim puts Katrina in perspective, again.