February 2, 2009

A Story of the Hurricane

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Were it not for Kimberly Roberts, the fiercely tenacious protagonist of Trouble the Water, this documentary would have left many in tears. While television media seemingly only covered the disaster after the Hurricane Katrina, Trouble the Water brings us right into the thick of the storm: the rising flood waters overcoming street signs, houses, trees, footage of the death of neighbors and family and the rotten corpse of a dog in the street. Roberts, along with her husband Scott, shares her videotaped documentation from directly before Katrina hit, during the storm itself and the struggle to survive afterward. Rather than the go-to Michael Moore style of documentary, which tries to interview many characters and document the full scope of a scene, Trouble the Water focuses on the experiences and struggles of just one woman. Roberts, whose conversations with neighbors, Navy guardsmen, police and survivors are all documented in this movie, is the audience’s window into another world. It is a world that — had it not been for Roberts’ unending perseverance — would appear fearsomely dismal and bleak.
The film opens with Roberts walking and bicycling around her neighborhood, talking to her friends and family. This footage was filmed on her own handheld camcorder; she later meets Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, the filmmakers of Trouble the Water, who turned Roberts’ story into a movie. Roberts is a force in her neighborhood; her spunk, not to mention familiarity with the city, allows her to document what outsiders could never have penetrated. At one point, Roberts goes into a convenience store (which is later shown decimated by flood waters) and when the owner says he doesn’t want to be filmed, she points out, “You got me on camera, shit!” Her stubbornness is later used to investigate the failure of the government to give New Orleans residents the aid that they needed. Roberts also frequently lingers on interviews with the children of the neighborhood, all of whom seem to trust her explicitly — as adults eventually come to as well. “I ain’t scared of hurricanes,” says one young girl, with a fierceness no doubt learned from Roberts herself.
The footage of the actual storm and the Roberts’ experience trapped in their attic is chilling — perhaps because recent horror films have taken to using the style of the handheld camera à la Blair Witch Project to portray moments of terror. The shaky footage, which roams from broken shattered glass and the gaining winds outside to the almost complete obscurity in the darkness of the top floor, is haunting. This is not a romanticized film: it doesn’t linger on sweeping landscapes or images of floodwaters in picturesque neighborhoods, as many news sources did. Trouble the Water remains about the human experience and does not stray: Each image contains people with names and faces and stories, struggling to survive.
Roberts, who is a hip-hop artist, frequently breaks into song throughout the film and her rapping seems like an extension of her normal gregariousness. While many hip-hop artists seem brash and showy, Roberts’ lyrics of survival and fortitude are an accurate documentation of her experiences. As circumstances seem only to worsen, Roberts is able to stay aggressively optimistic and upbeat. While Trouble the Water points no fingers, it makes explicit the devastating failure of the government to help the storm’s survivors. On a more intimate scale, the film shows the disappointment and feelings of abandonment felt by the citizens of New Orleans when they called 911 again and again to get no response, or those who were turned away from the Naval base, desperate for shelter and rest. Trouble the Water is a chilling movie, a documentary of a tragedy without much salvation. Nonetheless, it is a captivating film because of Kimberly Roberts, its fierce, thumping heart. She finishes the movie with her own song, whose refrain goes, “I don’t need you to tell me that I’m amazing” — it’s true, she doesn’t, because everyone knows.