[URBANTH-L]FILM REV: Trouble the Water (on Hurricane Katrina)
jancius3022 at comcast.net
Sun Aug 24 19:18:39 EDT 2008
A Troubling Reminder
With mesmerizing force, a Ninth Ward woman and her
camera capture the destruction of Katrina from the
By Kai Wright
Aug 21, 2008
Aug. 22, 2008--There are moments in Trouble the Water,
the searing new documentary on Hurricane Katrina,
particularly in the hours before the hurricane lands,
when you think the central character, Kimberly Rivers
Roberts, just doesn't get it. She's got her video camera
trained on her Ninth Ward block, playfully interrogating
everybody about what they're gonna do when Katrina comes
roaring in. They all look around, notice the rest of the
city has bailed and shrug.
"Seem like I'm the only stupid nigger that stayed,"
Trouble the Water, winner of the grand jury prize at
this year's Sundance Film Festival, opens this weekend
in New York and Los Angeles. The timing is apt. The
storm formed over the southeastern Bahamas on August 23,
a week before it tore through the Gulf Coast.
Roberts' blase is haunting. But the story soon makes
clear that she, in fact, gets it on a far deeper level
than any of the countless observers who've tried to make
sense of what happened to New Orleans on August 29,
Roberts' self-shot footage and personal story drive the
film. For her and the rest of the neighbors on her
block, in her hood, Katrina brought a more acute version
of the same challenge they already faced daily: Figuring
out how to navigate the thin but bright line between
optimism and fatalism, resistance and submission. They
are people who must, each day, grasp, as the old prayer
implores, the wisdom to know the difference between
things they can change and things they cannot-because
survival in walled-off, starved-out black neighborhoods
has always meant focusing on the former, so you don't
drown in the latter.
And it's clear from the outset of this gripping film
that few in Roberts' community can do much about the
fact that the city has abandoned them. They've been told
to evacuate. But they don't have cars or money to leave.
So they laugh in the face of horror. Little girls on
bikes taunt the storm; old men serve up false bravado;
corner drunks carry on drinking; and everybody takes up
the usual front-stoop post to speculate about what
tomorrow will bring.
But even as the neighbors submit to the fact that
they're stuck, they know they've got a remarkable weapon
to deal with whatever follows. Ultimately, they survive
Katrina and its aftermath on the singular strength of
their shared responsibility for one another. In the face
of government's willful neglect, community stepped into
The maddening irony is that, three years later,
community is the piece of New Orleans that has suffered
the greatest damage-and the piece that has been most
glaringly ignored in the rebuilding.
Roberts' chilling footage on the day of the storm alone
makes Trouble the Water required viewing for all
Americans. It's citizen journalism at its simple,
elegant best: She looks around and documents what she
The filmmakers, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, juxtapose
Roberts' reporting from the rafters of her flooded home
with footage shot by professional news camera crews and
commentary and reporting from professional journalists.
The contrast makes the TV "reporting" look ridiculous.
As Roberts records her family clambering out of
floodwaters and onto stacked furniture to break a hole
in the ceiling, The Early Show ponders the storm's
"wallop at the gas pump." As she interviews the kids and
neighborhood matriarchs crammed into her attic, a local
TV reporter plays in the rain, demonstrating how easily
he can be blown over, before retreating to the safety
Roberts' family couldn't buy.
When the rain subsides, Roberts keeps her camera
rolling, documenting the heroic efforts of one man-a
neighbor named Larry-who turns a punching bag into a
floating rescue raft. He wades house-to-house, pulling
elderly and disabled people to relative safety in a
common home with dry upper floors. Larry even becomes
the public information system the city failed to
implement. He stands in the middle of the block, chest
deep in water, to demonstrate the depth. "I'm taking two
at a time," he shouts out. "The important thing is not
Larry, burly and unapologetically in charge, is also the
sort of man that law enforcement and reporters
subsequently labeled a "looter." Trouble the Water turns
that idea on its head. At every turn, Roberts and her
neighbors appeal to the authorities for help and are
treated like criminals. The Coast Guard leaves them in
the flooded streets on the first night, but directs them
to the Navy barracks. When they arrive at the barracks,
the Navy sees a mob rather than a horde of stranded
citizens and turns guns on them. When Roberts tries to
get word to her brother in jail about her safety-and the
deaths of her uncle and grandmother-she's told he
doesn't have "phone privileges." It's pretty clear who
the real criminals are in all of this.
Throughout the ordeal, Kim Roberts and her community
refuse to submit. They can't control the storm, the
Navy, the FEMA bureaucracy. But they can control how
they react to it all, and they can build an organic
support system to keep them all moving forward. One of
the most striking things about Trouble the Water is just
how confusing the relationships are-you can't tell who's
family and who's not. Roberts casually refers to two
different women as "moms," one of whom in turn calls
Roberts a big sister, despite being old enough to be
Roberts' grandmother. Roberts' biological mom, you learn
in bits and pieces throughout, was addicted to drugs and
died from complications of AIDS when Kim was a teen. Kim
Roberts learned to survive long before Katrina hit.
Roberts' efforts to make it without the network they
built at home ultimately fail. She and husband Scott
made their way up to Memphis, but life was just as hard,
and, without the community that they cherished in the
Ninth Ward, they had to face it on their own. So they
sold their dog's 10 puppies and paid their way back to
New Orleans. "It was too hard to start over in a strange
place," she tells the camera. "If something happened to
me right around here," she waves her hand over her still
devastated block, "somebody gonna do something for me.
Somebody gonna call 911. If I ain't got no ride,
somebody gonna give me a ride. If I need some money,
well, they might not loan me no money, but they'll give
me some conversation!"
She brandishes that sort of optimism throughout the
film. It's less an indication of a rosy outlook than it
is her knowledge that she's rooted in something. Even if
she can't find security, she knows she can grasp the
safety of the relationships she has built in her
lifetime. And those are the vital, lifesaving
connections that, three years later, are still being
devastated-not by a hurricane, but by a government's
criminal failure to understand their importance, to
bring people home and give them the resources to rebuild
their neighborhoods and their lives.
Trouble the Water may be hard to find. After premiering
in New York and L.A. this weekend, it will roll out to
select theaters nationwide in September and October.
Many cities, many theaters may not run it, believing
that audiences have moved on or have "Katrina fatigue."
Demand it. Find it. Trouble the Water says as much-in
many ways more-about where we are as a country than any
other poltical piece that will be in wide release this
Kai Wright is author of Drifting Toward Love: Black,
Brown, Gay and Coming of Age.
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