When the history books close on the birth of the 21st century, two disasters will highlight the ineptitude of George W. Bush’s administration. Without a doubt, the tragedy on 9/11 will loom larger. But it’s easy to point fingers for that one, and the demolition of Iraq and death of Saddam Hussein may have (superficially) helped slake our thirst for revenge. The other event, the landfall of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, also claimed thousands of lives and destroyed part of a city. But with a storm, there is no one to blame, no one to kill, and the incompetence of the government’s response is more transparent without a war to distract us.
In their searing new documentary, Trouble the Water, filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (producers of Bowling For Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11) introduce us to Kimberly and Scott Roberts, residents of one of the New Orleans neighborhoods decimated after the levees broke. Kimberly (a.k.a. Black Kold Madina, an aspiring rap artist) and Scott (a drug dealer) have more to offer than a harrowing firsthand account of the hurricane. Using a camcorder she bought for $20 a week before the storm, Kimberly presents a first-person horror movie that is much, much more terrifying than anything the makers of the Blair Witch Project could conjure up.
In a time when anyone can be an amateur filmmaker, we expect all of our historical events to be caught on film. With the speed of the internet and television, footage can be cast all over the globe in the matter of seconds. But that over-saturation of imagery doesn’t take away from the gravitas of what we hear and see in Trouble the Water. We are lucky enough to have this recording to connect to these stories on a human level. Imagine if we had film from the Johnstown Flood or the Great Chicago Fire. Wouldn't the horror of these events resonate more if we could see and hear the victims?
The film begins just before the hurricane is set to hit New Orleans. Kimberly wanders through her neighborhood, a rundown section of the city, asking the other residents if they are planning to flee or brave the storm. Those who do not escape stay because they have no other choice. Either they are too drunk to stand or have no way out. Like many of her neighbors, Kimberly has no means to leave New Orleans. Out of self-defense, many of the remaining residents adopt a swagger, claiming that they're not afraid of the storm. But as the water rises and Kimberly and her family are forced to take shelter in the attic, the helplessness and dread becomes palpable.
Lessin and Deal approach this documentary with a philosophy almost diametrically opposed to the egoism of Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11. They do not appear in front of the camera, but rather let Kimberly and Scott narrate the story. They interweave occasional news footage and aerial shots of the flooded city, but the bulk of the film follows the protagonists as they flee New Orleans, bunking with relatives and trying to find a way to make sense of a life that has been completely washed away. By focusing on the plight of just two people, rather than the epic destruction of the entire city, Lessin and Deal make the tragedy even more heartrending. Instead of giving us nameless bodies floating face down in the flood water, they give us something we can connect to -- Kimberly’s sadness and loss. That connection is a crucial element of the film’s success.
Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke provided audiences with a myriad of voices, as well as damning commentary about FEMA’s ineffectiveness. Trouble the Water has none of the bombast of Lee’s film, but though it does not cover nearly as much ground, it is just as powerful. They will be compared, but they're most effective as companion pieces.
Humanity is resilient, and the directors depict its best elements during the worst of conditions. Scott and his sworn enemies drop all animosity to come together during the storm. Rather than look at Katrina as the end of his life, Scott says the hurricane derailed him from a path that would lead only to incarceration or death. A pair of older women praise Kimberly for caring for them during the storm. But nothing is more moving than the footage of a man using a punching bag for flotation, braving the flood waters to rescue his stranded neighbors. It is the determination of one man against the power of nature. Humanity wins.