Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Forty-Two

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#42 — Trouble the Water (Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, 2008)
It begins in the Superdome. It is mere days after Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans, the after-effects just beginning to be felt. Some officials are telling a film crew that they’ll need to turn their cameras off, undoubtedly to prevent them from capturing images of the reported miserable conditions inside the massive facility ill-equipped to serve as a refuge for people displaced by the storm. At the same time, two 9th Ward residents, clearly having just encountered the crew themselves, look into the camera and promise that they possess their own amazing footage. They do so boastfully, bravely, knowingly and with the spirited conviction of people holding on to an unseen version of the truth. This is our introduction to Kimberly Rivers Roberts and Scott Roberts, the central figures in the stellar documentary Trouble the Water.

They do indeed have incredible images to share, captured by Kimberly on her video camera. We see the the view from their front porch as the skies darken, their stairwell as the waters enter the house, the second-level window when the flood has reached the point that it’s nearly submerged the corner stop sign. We see their fellow residents through Kimberly’s lens as they casually prep before the hurricane arrives, and as they float through the neighborhood on makeshift rafts, trying to bring some level of relief to people trapped in their homes. The images of a city deluged that were shared on newscasts were powerful enough. Seeing it from the perspective of those right in the heart of the devastation, having it personalized so completely, redraws the episode in the most heart-rending manner possible. It was a natural disaster that swamped a city, but more than that, worse than that, it brutally impacted people, often stripping away every last belonging, every hint of personal prosperity. And it did it disproportionately to those who were least equipped to rebuild their damaged lives. A city can rebuild. For a person, a family, that prospect is more elusive.

There resides the real power of Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s feature. It is about Hurricane Katrina and the community that faced it. It is about the way the waters rose and receded and the governmental mismanagement that followed. It also about much more. Kimberly’s footage is used extensively and astutely, interwoven with media coverage of the event, showing that, no matter how well-intentioned, the reporters and news anchors were inadequately equipped to convey the woeful particulars of the situation. It could have been the whole film, but it isn’t. Deal and Lessin stay with the Roberts and their families, friends and new acquaintances as they come to terms with their ravaged landscape. The directors probe inconspicuously and artfully, allowing the bevy of injustices these residents face to plainly emerge. They were abandoned, marginalized citizens before the waters wiped away their fragile worlds. It becomes no surprise, given that context, that the official response was somewhere between callousness and indifference.

And yet it is their resiliency that comes through most clearly. No matter what indignity they encounter, from government underlings unable to explain the delays in promised assistance checks to the water company technician who turns off the service mere minutes after restoring it, they meet it with astonishing kindness and grace. Every person is thanked for their efforts, their presence, their presumed contribution to the rebuilding process. It is simultaneously an inspiring reminder of the human capacity for perseverance and miserable evidence of the way an entire class of people can be taught to expect nothing, no generosity, no kindness, no proper response from a nation that makes promises to all its citizens, but doesn’t feel compelled to honor them uniformly. This resilience doesn’t come with hope, exactly. Instead there’s a pragmatism, even a hint of resignation. They will need to continue on, making the best of things with nothing more than their own spirit. This reaches a sort of tragic peak when the Roberts briefly journey to Memphis and discover that the “black neighborhood” there is so much more well-developed than their own. Back home, no matter what they do, they are already starting at a disadvantage, and that was the case even before the waters invaded.

Deal and Lessin present all this without preaching. Despite ample opportunity for righteousness, the overwhelming tone is one of understanding and empathy. There are clear and necessary condemnations of some of the response by public and military officials, but not presented with fiery anger. The filmmakers know that can better stir passions by being somewhat impassive in their approach. Clear, focused depictions of Kimberly and Scott and those around them are enough to pull us into the emotions of New Orleans, before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. By letting their stories carry the film, Deal and Lessin craft a documentary that manages to be about more than its immediate topic. It is about a city and a storm, but it is also about the greater failings of our society. For the residents of the 9th Ward, the storm was just the latest, harshest blow.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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