In 2005, two amateur videographers, both Hurricane Katrina survivors, shared their footage and their stories of the storm with two professional filmmakers, and the collaboration has yielded “Trouble the Water,” a terrific documentary.
Horrifying, infuriating and uplifting as it engrosses us in the lives of people directly hit by the hurricane, the film triumphs as a chronicle of a disaster, an exposé of government failure and a human story.
Though they’ve worked with Michael Moore, filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal are also vérité-minded in their small- and big-picture accounts of Katrina.
The aforementioned videographers are aspiring rap artist Kimberly Rivers Roberts and husband Scott Roberts, residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.
We follow them as they brave the hurricane in their home, film the deluge and rising waters, reach safety, return to New Orleans and navigate government bureaucracy.
In addition to the 15 minutes of video (the batteries died) shot by Kimberly and Scott (mostly Kimberly), Lessin and Deal include their own footage, news items and 911 clips. They cover lots of ground.
In no exact order, the storm strikes, levees fail and the city doesn’t provide evacuation transport to those who can’t afford it. Emergency crews don’t arrive to rescue people trapped in water.
Scott and Kimberly eventually relocate to Tennessee. Kimberly, Scott and neighbors band together. Kimberly finds her uncle’s body. Obtaining FEMA aid proves yet another challenge.
While the movie’s time shifts are sometimes confusing, Lessin and Deal have created a hard-hitting, multidimensional picture of an American catastrophe.
Kimberly isn’t masterful with a video camera, but what she’s captured is unforgettable, as are the glimpses of neighbors helping one another.
The film also contains striking reminders of how people without financial resources or political clout, in this case low-income blacks, continue to be shafted. Most appalling is Scott’s report that the local Navy base, presumably a refuge, has turned away shelter-seeking storm victims at gunpoint.
“It’s like we lost our citizenship,” Kimberly says.
Not a downer, the film derives brightness from the charisma and deeper character of its subjects — self-described hustlers who are stirred by Katrina to restart their lives.
Kimberly, with her raps, take-charge dynamism and driving positive attitude despite longtime hardship, is one of the most inspiring documentary figures you’ll ever see.
As for Scott, in a passage toward the movie’s end, he’s doing construction work, rebuilding homes in Katrina-ravaged areas.
Trouble the Water (3 and a half stars)
Starring: Kimberly Rivers Roberts, Scott Roberts
Directed by: Tia Lessin, Carl Deal
Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes