“I’m showing the world that we had a world before the storm,” says Kimberly Rivers Roberts, a.k.a. Black Kold Madina, on August 28, 2005, the day preceding Hurricane Katrina’s devastating touch down in New Orleans. Kimberly is poor, black, and, unlike the majority of the city’s wealthier white citizens, unable to “afford the luxury” of transportation that could take her out of what will prove to be a very vulnerable Dodge. Armed with a newly purchased camcorder, she records and narrates her preparations for the storm as well as the ongoing life of her Ninth Ward community, including neighbors’ defying boasts in the face of reports warning residents to evacuate their homes due to the impending category-five hurricane.
Thus ominously, heartbreakingly begins Tia Lessin and Carl Deal‘s “Trouble the Water,” a documentary structured around Kimberly’s incredible footage and her post-Katrina survival. Unlike Spike Lee‘s expansive, macroscopic “When the Levees Broke” or Lucia Small and Ed Pincus‘s self-reflexive “The Axe in the Attic,” “Water” captures Katrina and its aftermath as it unfolds through the point of view of a single person, and through that single person the film focuses widely on “the world before the storm” Kimberly not only represents but struggles to keep alive.
Foregoing talking head interviews or voice-over narration, “Water” jumps back and forth in its first half between Lessin and Deal’s crew following Kimberly as she returns to survey the damage of her home and the footage Roberts shot as Katrina drowned the Ninth Ward. One can see why this woman immediately captured the filmmakers’ attention–brash, strong, and yet religiously humble, Kimberly has at the age of 24 suffered a lifetime of pain, from a drug-addicted mother who died of AIDS to the several family members lost to Katrina, and yet pushes on with an infectious fortitude and humor that comes through in her natural command of the camera (in front of and behind it). Lessin and Deal wisely let Kimberly and others–many of whom become friends while Katrina refugees–speak for herself, though the filmmakers’ work as producers for Michael Moore has obviously rubbed off, leading to a few ill-fitting newscast inserts of New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, former FEMA director Mike Brown, and, of course, George W. Bush–all at their bullshitting best–provided as easy fodder for viewers’ outraged sentiments.
Aside from those thankfully infrequent miscalculations, “Water” is full of revealing moments and painfully experienced truths, from the harrowing sight of Roberts and others holed up in her attic, desperately calling an overwhelmed 911 as they find buoyant objects to sail to safety, to the disturbingly cold explanation from an officer who turned away pleading civilians looking for shelter at a closed Navy base (reports conflict as to the violent extent of the rebuff–guards say they were carefully following orders, a civilian claims he and the people he was leading were threatened with locked and loaded machine guns). People who directly suffered from them describe the ineffectiveness of federal authorities and the lack of preparedness of the local government, and the film’s political critique naturally accrues from subjects directly addressing their discontent to the camera (“If you don’t have money, if you don’t have status, you don’t have a government,” says Kimberly).
But even more vital is “Water”‘s second half, a portrait of Kimberly, friends, family, and neighbors literally building from the ruins on the road from New Orleans and, once settled back in the city, fighting against the lures of street life by standing up for themselves and their disenfranchised community. This, even as Katrina gives them every opportunity to permanently flee the “bottom of the barrel.” One moment in particular poignantly imparts such life-affirming tenacity: Kimberly discovering the rap demo she recorded and feared lost in the flood, rapping to the accompaniment of her own voice an emotional song about enduring hardship. The song is called “Amazin'” — a fitting one- word description of “Trouble the Water.”
[Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. He also writes for L magazine, Stop Smiling, and runs the blog Hopeless Abandon.]