Of the many shorts, features, and news video bites devoted to Hurricane Katrina and its devastating effect on New Orleans' poorest citizens, three titles stand out: Spike Lee's TV mini-series When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts; Dawn Logsdon's documentary on the Crescent City's African-American community, Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans; and now, Trouble the Water, a documentary that changed direction, like a weather front, in the midst of being made.
Tia Lessin was a producer on three Michael Moore docs as well as on Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, and also produced Moore's groundbreaking TV series The Awful Truth. Carl Deal was an archival producer on two Moore films and has reported from Iraq and Latin America. So when Lessin and Deal saw the first footage coming out of New Orleans after the hurricane slammed the Gulf Coast in August, 2005, they, along with frequent Moore editor T. Woody Richman and producer Amir Bar-Lev (My Kid Could Paint That), knew they had to go there immediately and get the story.
Their original idea was to make a documentary on the National Guard soldiers stationed in New Orleans to keep the peace, but they were denied formal access to the troops. "Fahrenheit 9/11 screwed it up for all you guys," declared the media liaison. Lessin, Deal, and their crew were preparing to shut down the production and volunteer at a local Red Cross shelter when they were approached by Kimberly and Scott Roberts, New Orleans residents with a story to tell. That was a lucky break for everyone, especially us.
Before Katrina, Kimberly, aka Black Kold Madina, was an up-and-coming rapper in the city's hip-hop scene who had pinned her hopes on a demo CD. Just days before the storm, she bought a hi-8 video camcorder on the street for $20, to record family parties and such. But as the hurricane neared and Kimberly and her husband Scott decided to join many of their neighbors on France Street in the Lower Ninth Ward in trying to ride out the storm, she began covering the looming disaster herself, on the spot. Kimberly's images of people in the path of destruction form the basis of Trouble the Water, in concert with professional production footage, archival shots, and broadcast audio. But it's Kimberly, Scott, and their family and friends whose vision rings true. Her Katrina story is among the most amazing pieces of unmediated reality you'll see this year, or any year.
Kimberly and her family, in common with about half the city's population, didn't have the money or wherewithal to evacuate. As the sky clouds up and the barometric pressure drops, she goes out on the street and interviews her neighbors. They're pretty nonchalant. Most say they'll tough it out. After all, they've seen other hurricanes blow over before. Then comes the wind and rain, rising water as the levees burst, refuge in the attic as the house fills up, near-panic and prayers, and the heroic efforts of a neighbor, Larry Sims, who carries people on his back to safety at his house. When the rain subsides, Kimberly, Scott, and neighbor Brian Noble start the grim task of going into houses, searching for survivors in the damp wreckage. All this is captured on videotape with Kimberly's real-time, first-person commentary on camera. No other narration is necessary.
One especially poignant vignette deals with Kimberly's Uncle Nick, first seen slumped on somebody's front steps as the storm approaches. While everyone else is packing up the car, locking up the house, and running around in circles, Uncle Nick is passed out drunk, oblivious to everything. We can't help thinking that if Kimberly were to let him sleep, Katrina would eventually come and sweep Nick away to that big saloon in the sky. But Kimberly rouses him and shoos him to his house, where his body is discovered a few days later. The last time we see him alive, poor Uncle Nick is staggering away unsteadily, in no hurry to meet his fate.
At some point after the hurricane passed, Kimberly's camcorder battery died. To bridge the gap between her remarkable footage and the filmmakers' continuation of her and Scott's story, Lessin and Deal rely on network news coverage and other sources, including some especially harrowing audio from Kimberly's phone calls on behalf of her brother to Orleans Parish Prison, where prisoners were trapped in their cells.
As they walk through the city surveying the damage, Kimberly and Scott get no help at all from the naval base (essentially: "Stay away or we'll shoot") and only token reassurance from the National Guardsmen occupying the local high school — they're from Oregon and seem as disoriented as the displaced residents. Stunned as they are, the survivors quickly realize they're strictly on their own — forget about outside help. The official indifference later prompts a woman to observe: "If you don't have money and don't have status, you don't have the government."
As immediate and soul-stirring as the visuals are, Trouble the Water's music track is just as powerful. The filmmakers commissioned a soundtrack score from trip-hoppers Massive Attack, then blended in a funky array of blues (John Lee Hooker's version of "Money"), gospel, traditional tunes ("Wade in the Water" played on piano by Dr. John), second line by the Free Agents Brass Band, and Citizen Cope's beautiful "Hurricane Waters." But again, the star of the show is Sister Kimberly Black Kold Madina. She, Scott, and Brian relocate to a relative's home in Memphis, and there she finds the only existing CD copy of her work. She instantly launches into her song "Amazin'," a truly shattering rap she performs live for the camera in perfect synch with the CD. Kimberly has since gone on to form a label, Born Hustler Records, with her husband, who has found a construction job, helping to rebuild New Orleans. The film's title was taken from one of Kimberly's tunes.
Any lingering resentment we might have toward the federal government for its criminal non-response to the Katrina disaster is slowly, quietly replaced by the courage and matter-of-fact steeliness of Kimberly and her friends — truly the salt of the earth. They moved back to the Lower Ninth and are now committed to reconstructing their lives and their culture, come what may. Trouble the Water is their inspiring testament, a real-life thriller with a hopeful denouement.
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