Trouble the Water
directed by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin
There is a moment of exaltation in Trouble the Water where a woman named Kimberly Rivers Roberts locates the only copy of her CD in Memphis and quietly plays one of the tracks. She raps along to the disc and nearly blows the doors off the place harder than any mere hurricane could. It’s a song about despair, being mired in poverty and having to deal with drugs and violence as a way of life. Kimberly is a former or current drug dealer who has lived with her family in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward. It’s a comfortable neighborhood filled with familiar people. It’s also a direct target for Hurricane Katrina and as the film opens Kimberly is beginning to record the day because she feels it promises to be interesting. We see her world through the lens of a jumpy camcorder. We also know that Katrina is heading directly at Kimberly and her family and that there is no way they are going to be able to move away from it. This is the case for thousands of people who are too poor to leave and must do whatever it takes to ride out the storm.
The use of Kimberly’s camera work creates a disjointed, confusing space that readily mimics the chaos that will be brought down upon her and her family by the storm. The anticipation before landfall is fraught with tensions that are only exacerbated once Katrina hits. Suddenly a once quiet street is filled with water and many people all over the area are trapped with limited supplies. Meanwhile Kimberly gets as much of it on tape as she can. The film intercuts Kimberly’s footage with actual news broadcasts which appear to be disconnected from the actual tragedy. There is a tremendous gulf between what Katrina tapes and what is being shown on the television. Naturally, it is impossible for the media coverage to get the story from the inside and this is what make’s Kimberly’s camera work all that more powerful.
The film cuts between just before and during the storm and two weeks after. Afterward the only real trauma that is set before them is just when or if they are going to receive a check from FEMA which has promised survivors of the storm over 2 grand for their aggravation. There is a real sense in this film that the government did not react fast enough to the poorer areas of New Orleans and it becomes clear that repairs even a year on were not being undertaken in many of those areas. It’s a grim picture of an event that seems to be only the precursor to the actual tragedy.
The life energy sucked out of much of New Orleans is immense and naturally it required much time and patience to even begin to put it all back. In this film the streets are lined with debris from the homes and lives of actual breathing human beings, some of whom ended up dead in their attics or favorite chairs. It is difficult to determine which is more depressing–the poor and insolvent losing their lives because they have no transportation and no place to go or the images of people stuck together attempting to survive the convention center or the Superdome.
This is really a story about a resilient woman’s quest to survive something that has just about wrecked everything in her life save her relationship with her husband. She loses her grandmother who was staying in the hospital and much of the film leads to her funeral where her family just wants an opportunity to say goodbye.
It’s easy to condemn these people, to label them in a most specific way, for putting themselves in this situation. One cannot imagine being forced to face a level 5 hurricane with absolutely no ability to leave to higher ground. But poverty in this case and lack of connections has lead to a dire situation where the only choice is to stay behind and attempt the impossible, to ride out the storm in the blind hope that it won’t utterly swamp you and suck you into oblivion.
Kimberly finds one of her neighbors dead in his house and it’s one of those moments in the film where the reality of the situation comes in hard. Many lives were lost to this behemoth and again outside of the scope of the storm it’s easy to forget just how devastating to human life it actually was. Watching it on television as demonstrated in the film creates an instant disconnect that severs the viewer from the events as they unfolded in Louisiana. One remains a casual observer looking in on a surreal experience that through the television seems both beyond real and ultimately fascinating like very few things before on tv. The human drama unfolding before one’s eyes remains a stark and painful reminder of just how tenuous we cling to the material aspects of our lives. Katrina sends a message to all of us that our lives are more than the accumulation of our stuff. This film cements the idea that a major storm cannot strip a person of their dignity or their humanity. If a person survives they are left fundamentally with the only possession that truly matters.
Overall this is a film that resonates for a great number of reasons. It’s a tale of a remarkable woman’s survival through one of the deadliest cyclone storms in American history. Kimberly Rivers Roberts plays music that brings down the house as if she alone were doing God’s work through the terrible storm. Her music is sad and emblematic of a situation that defies human comprehension. It tears into the soul and forces the mind to accept the reality that continued to plague these survivors long after the storm had finished playing it’s symphony of chaos and destruction.