' ' Cinema Romantico: Trouble the Water

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Trouble the Water

I used to make gleeful fun of those moments in disaster movies when the hero's faithful, panting dog would appear to be right at death's door - swallowed by a ball of flames, burned alive in lava, etc. - only to escape at the last possible second. Never again. The reason? There is a moment in the astounding, almost impossible-to-watch documentary "Trouble the Water" when our primary subjects, Kimberly and Scott Roberts, have returned to the destroyed ghost town of the New Orleans Ninth Ward that is their home in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the faithful, panting dog we had seen earlier, whom they had presumed dead, turns up. Woah.

With the powerful Katrina taking aim at New Orleans, Kimberly Roberts fired up a small video camera and took to the streets of her neighborhood, documenting the calm before the storm and how next to no one in the Ninth Ward was able to get out because, as Roberts herself says, evacuation is "luxury we can't afford." The filmmakers, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, who had originally come to make a documentary about the Louisiana National Guard just back from Iraq to find the devastation, whom Roberts would encounter afterwards and who agreed to take a look at her footage before joining forces to frame Roberts' amateur footage with footage you have probably seen before - like that of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin advising he hopes everyone leaves the city, while a screen title tells us no efforts were made to use public transit for those with no means to evacuate.

Much of Roberts' storm footage is rather simple but that simpleness gives it a directness that most of the more artful takes on this awful subject have been unable to capture. The wind picks up. The rain starts to fall. She sends a friend home with a few groceries, his umbrella offering protection in the early snippets of what will soon transform into a 165 mph gale. Homes flood. The Roberts family moves to its attic. Outside begins to resemble the "ocean". In one of the more difficult-to-digest passages flood ravaged footage is countered by 911 calls from stranded residents told no rescues can me made at this time. My God, listening to a person plead "I'm gonna die....hello?" followed by a 911 Operator flatly saying "Yeah?" as if discussing a credit card late charge is disturbing in a way that should not, at any time or in any place, apply to real life.

The inevitable moments crop up - shots of former President George W. Bush "reassuring" the American people and the lily-livered Michael Brown squinting into the camera as if news reporters are speaking to him in Icelandic and the brief tale of a Navy base set to be closed down that refuses to allow now homeless citizens in because they have to "protect the government's interests" or some such nonsense. But these are not the places where Lessin and Deal dwell. "Trouble the Water" is not a political story, it is a story of survival, which makes it ten times more powerful.

And through it all Roberts cuts a decidedly heroic, ordinary, and occassionally outlandish heroine who for all the biblical abonimations she faces seems so wonderfully and defiantly joyous. After the hurricane she and her husband encounter an addict who had been living in a church-run shelter and invite him along for help and friendship. They are evacuated north and then try to find new lives in Memphis before returning to New Orleans because despite the devastation it is still their home. Oh, and she's a rapper to boot. Did I mention that? In the scene that apparently brought the house down at Sundance Roberts raps directly into the camera - "You don't have to tell me I'm amazing" - a song she wrote that somehow would seem to summarize how most of the community felt after the levees failed. No, it's not quite Chuck D. and "Welcome to the Terrordome" but maybe that's okay because the world isn't always just about terror and/or wars on it.

Stephen Colbert ain't America. Kimberly Roberts is.


Wretched Genius said...

If you haven't seen it yet, you should add Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke to your Netflix queue. You won't regret it.

Nick Prigge said...

I definitely need to see that one. It's just taken me awhile to summon the strength to watch the Katrina-related movies.