Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, this astonishing powerful documentary is at once horrifying and exhilarating. Directed and produced by “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Bowling for Columbine” producers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, Trouble the Water takes you inside Hurricane Katrina in a way never before seen on screen. The film opens the day before the storm makes landfall — just blocks away from the French Quarter but far from the New Orleans that most tourists knew. Kimberly Rivers Roberts, an aspiring rap artist, is turning her new video camera on herself and her 9th Ward neighbors trapped in the city. “It’s going to be a day to remember,” Kim declares. As the hurricane begins to rage and the floodwaters fill their world and the screen, Kim and her husband Scott continue to film their harrowing retreat to higher ground and the dramatic rescues of friends and neighbors. The filmmakers document the couple’s return to New Orleans, the devastation of their neighborhood and the appalling repeated failures of government. Weaving an insider’s view of Katrina with a mix of verite and in-your-face filmmaking, Trouble the Water is a redemptive tale of self-described street hustlers who become heroes — two unforgettable people who survive the storm and then seize a chance for a new beginning.
The film that New Yorkers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal made, rather than the one they envisioned, began two weeks after Katrina made landfall in New Orleans.
Director/Producer Tia Lessin said: “We were stunned by the televised images of elderly people laid out on baggage claim carousels at the airport, and bloated bodies floating where streets had been. We wanted to know why the city had not been evacuated before the storm, and why was it that help was so late in coming after the levees collapsed. We want to make sense of it all.”
Kodak donated film stock, friends donated camera equipment and family donated frequent flier miles, and the duo flew to the central Louisiana city of Alexandria a week after the storm with co-producer Amir Bar-Lev (My Kid Could Paint That). There, they met their Texas-based director of photography, PJ Raval, who had left Austin just as evacuees were arriving in his city.
“What originally brought us to central Louisiana was a report about the return of thousands of Louisiana National Guard soldiers from Baghdad to nearby Fort Polk in the aftermath of Katrina. We wondered what those soldiers would experience, going from one war zone to another, closer to home,” said director/producer Deal.
After being greeted at the airport by a Blackwater military contractor with a flat top and civilian clothes who mistook their tripod bags and gear for guns and ammo, the film crew spent days documenting the homecomings of National Guardsmen and women. “We interviewed soldiers who had lost their homes while deployed in Sadr City seven thousand miles away,” said Lessin. “We watched them reunite with family they never should have been separated from, and we saw the effects of post traumatic shock. Soldiers came home to find out their homes and communities had been destroyed, and they were devastated.”
But the story started to bog down when the National Guard public affairs team closed off access to the independent filmmakers. “Fahrenheit 9/11 screwed it up for all you guys,” said the media “liaison,” little suspecting she was addressing two of that film’s producers.
We were ready to shut down the cameras, send our crew home, and start volunteering at the shelter,” said Deal. That was when, at an Alexandria Red Cross shelter on day four of the shoot, Kimberly and Scott Roberts, who had evacuated New Orleans a week earlier, spotted Deal and the crew. The chance meeting redirected the film and opened up a story that did, indeed, help “make sense” not only of this particular disaster, but of issues that haunt America: Who is vulnerable in our society and why? And what does it take to beat the odds and survive, even triumph?
“People ask us how we found Kimberly and Scott,” Lessin says, “And the truth is that they found us.”
Within minutes after Deal, Lessin and their crew wandered across the parking lot that separated the National Guard Armory and the Red Cross shelter, they crossed paths with Kimberly and Scott, who walked into their camera’s frame and never left. The city was on its knees, but 24-year-old Kimberly was back on her feet.
“See,” she said pointing to Lessin and Deal’s cameras, “how you’re doing, I was doing that…When you wanna get with me and look at the tape?”
The day before Katrina made landfall was the first day Kimberly ever used a video camera. A week earlier she had bought a camcorder on the street for $20, “because it was a good value.” She says she was intending on recording birthday parties and family moments. After the storm hit and the power lines went down, Kimberly had two hours of charge left on her camera battery. The next day, when that battery ran out of juice, she shot several short movie clips on a still camera, documenting the long wait for a rescue that never came.
“The moment we made contact, it was magic,” Deal says. “Kimberly and Scott’s gift as storytellers was obvious from minute one. We later decided to open the film with that first encounter to introduce the audience to Kimberly and Scott the way we were introduced to them.”
“When we first met Kimberly and Scott, they were swaggering with raw charm, peddling their home video of the hurricane. They were self-described hustlers. As we got to know them, we realized they were also talented, resourceful, and deeply sympathetic to people who were surviving not only failed levees, armed soldiers and bungling bureaucrats, but also their own past,” says Lessin.
“Kimberly and Scott have survived all the storms in their lives not because they are lucky, but because they have intelligence, guts, and the kind of hope that is based in will rather than experience,” says Deal.
Don’t miss “Trouble the Water“ premiering August 28th at 9P et/pt.