Trouble the Water (IMDB), Kimberly Roberts’ gripping personal narrative of survival in the face of Hurricane Katrina, introduces us to Kim in an Alexandria, Louisiana, shelter where she and her husband, Scott, have finally landed a few days after the storm, a look of exhaustion and relief crossing their faces mixed with a hint of excitement that they may finally have a platform from which to tell their story. “Y’all are national, right?” Kim asks, skeptically at first. “Because our story is too big for the local news. Nobody’s got what I got.” And the film itself, as directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, goes on to fulfill that promise, taking viewers on a journey beginning just a few hours before Katrina hit through the storm itself and then several months later, as many of the government’s promises remain unfulfilled, with many of the city’s poorest residents slipping through cracks in the system.
Much of this story is told through the eyes of Kim and her friends and family. Kim happened to purchase the camera a few days before the storm, originally intending to use it to make some side money recording weddings and birthdays, but instead she introduces us to her Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood and her neighbors who are told to evacuate but often can’t because of a lack of transportation. In fact, the Roberts likely would have left New Orleans before the storm had their car not been stolen days before the storm hit. As the storm approaches and eventually hits, bringing the flood waters that would breach the levees, Kim records everything with her digital camera. We see the family huddled in the attic, a distant stop sign almost engulfed in water, a marker for the amount of flooding. We see a neighbor who has managed to corral a small fishing boat he can use to escort Kim and others to safety (one of the great moments in the film shows Kim, Scott, and the neighbor, Larry, discovering the boat where they left it, propped up against a school that had served as a makeshift shelter. We also see Kim and her friends as they return to the Lower Ninth Ward, confronting the death and destruction that had gone pretty much ignored by the National Guard rescue teams.
The result of all this is one of the most personal, gripping narratives about Hurricane Katrina that I have yet seen. While Variety’s Robert Koehler dismisses the film as a “minor” contribution to a larger body of work about one of the biggest natural disasters in U.S. history, it is precisely the story’s intimacy that makes the film work. In fact, the film provides us with what is one of the more memorable images I’ve seen on screen in a long time: a sequence recorded in the Memphis home of one of Kim’s cousins in which Kim, an aspiring rapper, raps along to a recording of one her songs, telling the story of overcoming her mother’s drug addiction and early death due to AIDS. The song comes across as part prayer, part confession, but it is filled with the bravado of someone who has faced every imaginable obstacle and managed to survive.
The film also provides us with some reminders of the official response to the storm, with the bravery and ingenuity of Kim, Scott, and Larry contrasted with the incompetence and indifference of FEMA and the federal government in general. At one point, in fact, we see Scott punctuating this point by reminding a group of National Guard soldiers that the “real” war is here in New Orleans, in all of our poverty-stricken neighborhoods, and not in Iraq. But Trouble the Water underplays these depictions of FEMA chief Michael Brown, allowing Kim and Scott’s experiences to comment more powerfully than any gotcha clips ever could. As B. Ruby Rich observes, the Roberts’ personal story provides us with everything we need to see “government malpractice” on a massive scale.
As Karina points out, there is some risk that the Roberts’ story may risk coming across a little “pat,” especially given that the film seems so determined to find an inspirational arc within their experiences. But it remains difficult for me to view the images of destroyed and abandoned buildings that dominate the Lower Ninth Ward without being reminded of the emotional and physical toll the storm took. Kim’s decision to record her experiences of Hurricane Katrina has provided us with an important, much needed perspective on Katrina’s devastating toll while also showing us one individual family’s struggle to survive the storm. Even a day after watching their story unfold on screen, I’m still reeling.
Update: Thanks to Green Cine for compiling links to many of these reviews.
Update 2: A.J. Schnack raises some interesting questions about Trouble the Water that have been bothering me as well. He points out the significant problem that Lessin and Deal are credited as directors while Roberts, whose footage comprises a major bulk of the movie is merely credited with “additional camera work.” I didn’t get a chance to see Axe in the Attic, the other Katrina doc referenced by A.J., so I can’t make a comparison, but I do think there are some fairly powerful moments that reflect some deep emotional conflict, particularly the scene in which Roberts performs one of her songs for the camera, narrating to us her story of survival, both before and after Katrina hit, culminating in her defiant return of the camera’s gaze.