Just after Hurricane Katrina swept across the Gulf Coast, documentary filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal arrived in Alexandria, La., anticipating making a film about the government response and the devastating aftermath.
They were at a Red Cross shelter in Alexandria when Kimberly and Scott Roberts literally stepped in front of their camera and announced that they had remained behind in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans throughout the storm, taking refuge in their attic as the waters rose, flooding their home and topping street signs. Kimberly explains that she had bought a camcorder from a streetie for $20 the week before. She began filming in her neighborhood during the hours before Katrina made landfall and for as long as the batteries lasted on the night of Aug. 29, 2005.
She told Lessin and Deal she had the footage with her.
Suddenly the filmmakers found that the documentary they had set out to make took a decided turn. They discovered that the footage Kimberly captured, while jerky and ill-framed, was also hard-edged film verité. Theirs was a poor neighborhood and many of the residents could not afford to evacuate; no public transportation was provided.
And so, at the outset, Kimberly and Scott walk the streets of their community, capturing an eerie calm on the streets, children riding their bikes, men and women gathered in front of a small grocery store, though all are aware that a storm of unknown magnitude is headed in their direction. Gradually the day grows darker and the winds begin to moan and howl, shingles from roofs are blown about like fall leaves and diaphanous curtains of rain obscure the houses and the street. Katrina is making her presence known and soon conditions go from bad to life-threatening.
Lessin and Deal intercut Kimberly's footage with cable newscasts, jump ahead to weeks after the storm, then back to the hours and days shortly afterward. The lack of a chronology in no way diminishes what becomes a harrowing tale of desperation, resilience, courage and a will to prevail.
Images of hundreds of people waiting for help on rooftops, in attics, taking shelter beneath overpasses and at the Superdome are still shocking to behold. Recorded emergency calls to overwhelmed 9-1-1 operators, who have no one to send out, are chilling. One elderly woman, her voice filled with a sad resignation, pleads for help. She's trapped in her attic and the water is ever rising.
What the winds and rain and raging waters from broken levees left in their wake was not just vast devastation but an incontrovertible truth: Systemic poverty is still a reality for millions of people in America. The poor were always in New Orleans — those who live on the frayed margins of society, barely getting by. What Katrina did was focus the nation's attention on the least among us and what it means to be poor, lacking resources and, finally, hope.
This crisis revealed an ill-prepared government that responded by not responding, at times with a callousness that will not soon be forgotten, especially by those who lived through it. Katrina quickly became a metaphor for a government that too often turns away and, despite a voiced commitment to bring aid, a promise to step forward, moves on.
"Trouble the Water," Grand Jury Winner for Best Documentary at Sundance, 2008, follows Kimberly and Scott from New Orleans to Alexandria, where they have family, and then back to the Ninth Ward and their home, using film shot by Lessin and Deal. The couple and the filmmakers walk through their abandoned neighborhood, now silent, and wonder why help hasn't arrived. They discover a body in a once-flooded house, a neighbor who stayed behind. They are reluctant to go into their own home, aware of what they will find: the rancid remains of all of their possessions. All is in ruin.
In the end, "Trouble the Waters" tells as much about two people who have been buffeted by life (they are streetwise hustlers, but not cynical), who face a test that many would find unbearable, as it does about the physical impact of the storm. Scott and Kimberly refuse to yield.
As the final scenes appear on screen, Kimberly shares a rap song she has cut on a CD (she's a rapper, which at first blush might make any audience roll their eyes). But surprisingly, her song is powerful, and clearly comes directly from her life, which has been shrouded with loss (her mother died of AIDS when she was 13) and out of necessity constructed of hard edges.
But now, everything has changed, nothing is as it was, and there is embedded in the film the belief that their lives are about to change as well. It is tempting to romanticize Kimberly and Scott Roberts, insisting that they will emerge out of the crucible of Katrina transformed. Perhaps not. It's hard out there if you're poor. But what the film does do is humanize them, peel away the patina of stereotypes and shatter the prism of bigotry. And it reveals, simply, hardscrabble people who hope for better and are willing to work for it.
"Trouble the Water" opens tonight at the Varsity Theatre, 166 E. Main. St., with three showings: 3:40 p.m., 6 p.m., 8:20 p.m. Call 482-3341 for more information.