Delta Blues: 'Trouble the Water' Takes a Ground-Level View of the Wrath and Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, whose previous credits between them include Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 and Bowling for Columbine and Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home, made their debuts as directors/producers with Trouble the Water, a redemptive story of two self-described street hustlers who become heroes in the heart of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster. This documentary, which captured the Grand Jury Prize in Documentary at Sundance, takes viewers into the eye of Hurricane Katrina and its tragic aftermath in a way never before seen on film. With a combination of footage shot by Lessin, Deal and cinematographers PJ Raval and Nadia Hallgren, as well as video footage shot by New Orleans native Kimberly Rivers Roberts, Trouble the Water shows the impact of Hurricane Katrina and what happened to the city's poorest residents both during and after the storm. With a rare and raw first-person perspective from Roberts, this film raises many socio-political, economical and governmental questions, all of which expose the underlying issues that plague the aftermath of the hurricane.
Roberts and her husband, Scott Roberts, were among the many New Orleans residents who were unable to evacuate the city; they did not have the money to get anywhere, nor did they have the transportation available to them to do so, despite an evacuation order from the mayor of New Orleans. The film highlights the fact that there were no attempts made by the National Guard or Coast Guard to rescue the stranded, therefore forcing the Roberts and their neighbors to take shelter in the Roberts' attic. Kimberly, like many others, was told that police were not coming out until the weather cleared, and that there were no rescue vehicles available. Left to fend for themselves, the Roberts and their friends pulled together, escaping with the help of a brave neighbor, who saved one person at a time trekking through the water.
As Hurricane Katrina raged and the floodwaters filled the streets, Kimberly kept filming, documenting the devastation of the neighborhoods and highlighting the repeatedly appalling failures in government. Telling moments happen throughout the film, all of which expose the real issues at hand. A vacant military base, for example, is be guarded by a few soldiers. These soldiers had been ordered not to allow displaced residents to take shelter at the base, despite hundreds of empty rooms available. Later, these same soldiers were commended for bravery in protecting government property. Other institutions such as FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) famously failed in their promise to help US citizens.
"We were outraged by the abandonment of citizens," Lessin and Deal explain. "We wanted to know why the city had not been evacuated before the storm, and why help was so late in coming." The filmmakers set out to make a documentary that deepened the national conversation and connected with people. "We wanted to enrage and inspire at the same time," says Deal. "And Kim and Scott hit all our marks. We really connected to them as people."
Caption: Kimberly and Scott Roberts, featured in Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's Trouble the Water, which is being released theatrically August 22 through Zeitgeist Films. Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.
Deal and Lessin's main concern, however, is that people take something with them after the film, whether it be a sense of fear, anger, questioning or hope. "We wanted to tell the best story we could, the most complete story we could," Deal maintains. Through the Roberts, the filmmakers were able to capture more than they had anticipated, making this film not just about Hurricane Katrina, but about America.
Trouble the Water is a story of heroism, among some of America's most disenfranchised people. Scott Roberts describes the film to be about "unity and triumph, exposing the truth about black America, about poor America. We only get ten percent of the story from the news, and this way you can finally see the real story."
"People are so busy that they overlook those who need help," Kimberly Roberts notes. "Institutions ignore the less fortunate, and therefore cripple our ability to become more fortunate. This is where it starts." Both Kimberly and Scott are proud to be part of Trouble the Water because it is an opportunity-not only for them, but also for the citizens of New Orleans-to have attention drawn to the city. Kimberly is using this opportunity to launch her musical career, and inspire people. "This is everybody's story," she maintains. "This is not just a New Orleans story; this is a poor people story."
This film gives a voice to the survivors and victims of Hurricane Katrina and tells a story of determination in the face of overwhelming adversity. And the film poses many challenging questions. "What does it take to beat to odds, especially when your trusted institutions have failed you?" Lessin asks. "And what are we going to do about it?"
In conjunction with the theatrical release of Trouble the Water, which opens August 22 through Zeitgeist Films, the filmmakers are working with many faith-based, advocacy and service-based groups that specialize in such areas as criminal and civil justice, sustainable equitable development, cultural work and educational reform, to develop a robust outreach program of screenings and discussions. Visit www.troublethewaterfilm.com for more information.
Mia Fatrdla is a Burlington, Ontario-based writer.