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Katrina doc 'Trouble the Water' wades into Oscars

February 20, 2009 |  2:15 pm

Trouble_water_kim_scott2_25 "This needs to be worldwide. 'Cause all the footage I've seen on TV, nobody got what I got."

With Kimberly Roberts' statement, the Oscar-nominated "Trouble the Water" invites us into a shaky cinema verite version of her experience in the middle of Hurricane Katrina, providing an intimate look at the aftermath that we might have missed from national news coverage. 

"We couldn't make sense of what we were seeing [on TV]," says "Trouble" directors and producers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal. After watching six or seven days of coverage, "we decided we needed to put ourselves down there, with our cameras, to try to make sense of it all."

Lessin and Deal, whose previous documentary work includes Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Bowling for Columbine," say their backgrounds have prepared them to turn on a dime, which is exactly what they had to do when the National Guard public affairs representatives in New Orleans closed off access to independent filmmakers. "You have to keep your eyes open and follow the action," Deal says. "Life is more interesting when you're surprised. I think allowing yourself to be surprised as a journalist and filmmaker is a genuine experience that will be transferred to the audience."

"Strong characters are the strength of any good story," Lessin says. And the best surprise of their journey was meeting Kimberly and Scott Roberts, whose personal transformations throughout the film are the heart of the story and help make sense of the chaos that surrounded Katrina.

Watching the footage of the wind picking up momentum, of old-timers in stores emptied of supplies laughing off the evacuation orders ("I ain't never left for a storm") and of the more common complaint, "I'm not leaving 'cause I can't afford it," the viewer may still feel a distance from the people in the film.  It's in the quiet moments, the chilling 911 audio calls, the gratitude of Kimberly's elderly neighbor ladies for her help, her attitude, her life, that you connect with, and the people are no longer characters but friends and neighbors, aunts and uncles. 

One of Lessin's and Deal's favorite moments was in seeing how the experience and the film itself transformed Kimberly. "She's never seen herself this way -- until she heard it from the old women, until she saw it in the movie -- is what she told us," Lessin says.

She recalls the scene where Kimberly and Scott roll into Memphis, the first time leaving their community and the state of Louisiana, to try life with their cousins outside the war zone their neighborhood had become. 

Another powerful moment in Kimberly's transformation is when the filmmakers discovered her talent as a musician. Happy to learn that her cousin had a CD of her music that Kimberly had thought was lost to the storm, she spontaneously performs one of her raps, "Amazing."

"It's sort of the autobiographical narrative about her life. And it's so much more powerful and profound than any sit-down interview could ever be," Lessin says.

"What makes it my favorite is the way audiences respond to it," Deal says. "How often do you see, in a documentary in particular, an audience burst into applause in the middle of a film? It's interesting to see how many different people from all different backgrounds connect with Kimberly in that moment.... We withheld that until later in the film, because we wanted you to know Kimberly, to understand something about her and how she got where she was, so that when she delivers that poetry, people really feel it."

"If I had wheels I'd be gone too." -- Kimberly Roberts

The filmmakers focus their cameras on Kimberly and Scott, but through their experiences with the government, with the evacuation orders and the endemic poverty, the underlying current of the failure of the U.S. government to respond and meet the needs of its citizens is exposed.  Executive producer Danny Glover states, "It did not turn the region into a Third World country -- it revealed one."

The Oscar nomination for best documentary is one more way to help get the story to the public.

Tia_carl_250_2 "Hopefully, this national and international exposure will help bring more attention to so many people who continue to struggle," Lessin says of the nomination and the hoped-for response. "The answer's on the website, You can find resources to plug into. As a filmmaker, I hope that people see the film and have conversations about it. That it makes them think about something different -- if people start talking about poverty and race and rap music, if they start thinking about people a little differently or themselves differently."

"There's a lot of talk these days about people on 'Main Street' and the hard times they're facing," Deal says. "But on the runup to Katrina, there wasn't a lot of talk about the people of St. Claude Avenue and the 9th Ward. It feels like nowadays it's harder times for more and more people, and because of that, more and more people are connecting with this film, with Kimberly and Scott and their experiences, no matter what their background is."

And those walking the Oscar red carpet will have one more thing in common with Kimberly and Scott.  Having never left Louisiana before Katrina, they have undertaken an expanding journey that continues long after the cameras stopped rolling. Kimberly and Scott have been traveling with Lessin and Deal since the film was released in August. The week they found out about the Oscar nomination, Lessin and Deal were at Sundance, where the journey for the film started a year earlier. 

"We were on the phone with Kimberly and Scott," Deal says, "and it was the perfect capper for a week that began with Tia and Scott screening the film at the King Center at the invitation of Dr. King's family in Atlanta.  We saw the Bushes kicked out of the White House and the Obamas move in, and the end of the week we got the news on this nomination. You couldn't ask for more than that. Whatever happens next, it couldn't get much better."

"I don't need you to tell me I'm amazing.
After hard times, oh look
the joy I've found
and what the world gonna do
cause they can't stop me now."

-- excerpt from "Amazing," performed by Kimberly Roberts

-- Rebecca Snavely

Photo (top): Kimberly Rivers Roberts and Scott Roberts meet the filmmakers for the first time. Credit: Zeitgeist Films

Photo (bottom): Directors and producers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal. Credit: Zeitgeist Films


"Trouble the Water" review

A great year for water at Sundance

Oscar scorecard