Monday, March 08, 2010

No-Holds-Barred “Trouble the Water” Asks What It Means To Be American, Ya Heard Me?

It took three long years to turn incredible footage shot from a flooding attic in the besieged Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans into a searing social commentary on what happens when a government turns its back on its own people. It took three long years to finally find the lens that helped turn conversation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina from pity to accountability. It took three long years for the floodwaters of Katrina to finally subside enough to unearth “Trouble the Water” amidst the Big Easy’s forgotten, abused and destroyed debris.

Few projects have ever been so worth the wait.

Trouble the Water” was a work that Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, the producers of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” among other stellar films, refused to give up on. No matter how many bridges were burned by the release of “Fahrenheit,” no matter how many naysayers said no one wanted to see a Katrina movie told from the black point of view, no matter how many obstacles jumped in their path, Deal and Lessin wouldn’t relent. They felt they owed it to those who suffered through so much with the help of so few.

“Long before the economy was in trouble, long before there was Iraq, there was Katrina,” Lessin told “This story needs to be told.
“The people of New Orleans made us pledge that we would get it done.”

Getting it done meant battling against all odds to ensure that the producers who finally took the Bush Administration to task in “Fahrenheit” once again were able to shine a light on perhaps the biggest crime perpetrated by “W” and his lying, fraudulent, criminal cronies. And as every door seemed to open into another dead end, providence seemed to intervene when Lessin and Deal found Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband, Scott, in a Red Cross Shelter, proclaiming the words, “Look, y’all. We have a story to tell.”

And little could Lessin and Deal have known what a tale it was.

Shooting on a $20 hi-8 camera, 24-year-old Kimberly chronicles the impending arrival of Katrina, its devastating effects during its siege of New Orleans and its heart-breaking aftermath. Brutally, brutally honest, the footage makes no attempt to disguise the fact that Kimberly and Scott are unapologetic, self-proclaimed “street hustlers” with troubled pasts and difficult presents. The movie isn’t 5 minutes old before Kimberly is asked if she still has some weed, and as the story unfolds, it is revealed that Kimberly was the author of the long scar that climbs along Scott’s cheek (courtesy of a razor blade) and we’re shown footage of Scott dancing around with an AK-47 in a haze of pot smoke.

Yet, the sins of the photographers could never alter the reality posed by the footage; for the camera never lies. In harrowing, never-before-seen film (seriously), we’re given front-row seats as the Roberts and family and friends huddle in an attic, their lives hanging in the balance. We feel the floodwaters lapping against our legs as we’re shown heroes from the workaday world using discarded punching bags as canoes in an effort to save the sick, the elderly, the young, the lame. We ride shotgun as Kimberly and Scott pilgrimage across Louisiana and into Tennessee in search of safe haven, buoyed by hopes that the lives they hated can begin anew, their sins washed away along with their homes and possessions. We followed in their footsteps as they navigate the red tape to try to get promised FEMA funds, as they bury loved ones, as they try to save who they can, as they eventually return to New Orleans when all else fails. We peek over their shoulders as they interact with National Guards troops, as they discover dead bodies in houses that haven’t been inspected two weeks after the storm, as they recount a harrowing faceoff at an abandoned Naval base where scores of refugees went for solace, only to be ushered away at gunpoint by unfeeling, faceless robots.

As the tagline indicates, “It’s not about a hurricane. It’s about America.” Too often, this flick displays, in black and white, that America means bureaucratic failure, latent hostility and complete governmental complicity; Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times calls “Trouble the Water” a “remarkable story of community resilience in the face of government indifference.” By an unexplainable refusal to acknowledge that Katrina ever happened or that one of the nation’s most treasured cities lies underwater and its citizens die on the edge of highways awaiting water, just water, we are demonstrably shown that, just as Nero fiddled while Rome burned, W diddled while New Orleans drowned.

The pessimist could argue that the documentary is one-sided and that Kimberly could be using the movie as a vehicle to further her aspiring rap career, under the name Black Kold Medina. Even if those things are true, who are we to say that we are witness to the only side that matters, and that Kimberly doesn’t deserve a boost considering what she and her community went through?

The reality is that “Trouble the Water” represented a story that desperately needed to be told; nay, had to be told. Reflecting this truth is the fact that this documentary was met with a proverbial boatload of awards, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the Grand Jury Award at the Full Frame Documentary Festival, both in 2008. The piece was also nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature in 2009 and was tabbed as the best documentary of 2008 by the American Film Critics Association and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Considered by most to be one of the top 10 films of 2008, “Trouble the Water” was an emotional tour de force for Lessin, for Deal, for Kimberly and Scott.

This incredible work is, at times, both sad and humorous enough to reduce you to tears, to make you weep both for the future of our country and for the enduring spirit of its least privileged. It can make you cry for the New Orleans that was, the New Orleans that will never be again and for the New Orleans that, warts be damned, still remains, as proud as ever, chin lifted to the sun over the Mississippi. “Trouble the Water” is all these things, and many more.

Kudos to the bravery it took for Kimberly, Scott, Lessin and Deal to never stop troubling the water … until this evocative work of art rose to the surface.

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