Trouble the Water



Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- "Trouble the Water" presents a unique, ground-level perspective on Hurricane Katrina that's been sorely missing from previous accounts of the disaster. In particular, amateur footage incorporated into the docu that was shot by a New Orleans resident who survived the storm speaks volumes regarding corporate media bias and government neglect of Katrina victims.

At the same time, the film's content presents singular challenges for theatrical release. With some judicious re-editing and the Sundance Film Festival Documentary Grand Jury prize as a selling point, "Trouble" could see a limited run followed by niche cable broadcast, although ultimately it might be best suited to festival play and DVD.

As Katrina prepares to slam into New Orleans in August 2005, African American Ninth Ward residents Kimberly and Scott Roberts search for a way out of the city before it hits. Short on cash for evacuation expenses, they get stuck in town and switch to survival mode.

Shooting with a consumer DV camera she bought off the street just the day before, Kimberly -- a former small-time drug dealer and aspiring rapper with three songs credited on the film's soundtrack -- narrates the haphazard storm preparations in her neighborhood as people stockpile supplies and prepare their homes for the onslaught.

When Katrina hits, the Roberts hole up in their attic with a meager stash of supplies and no electricity as 120-mph winds and torrential rain batter the structure. Once Katrina passes, Kimberly documents the flooding that follows burst levees and a near-total absence of official rescue operations, as well as the bravery and determination of impoverished, displaced citizens to escape the rising floodwaters.

By the time co-directors Lessin and Deal arrive on the scene, the Roberts have already evacuated New Orleans for centrally located Alexandria, La. The New York-based filmmakers take up the Roberts' story from this point, substituting smooth super 16mm and 24p digital for Kimberly's shaky handheld footage. Although the Roberts initially try to relocate to Memphis, they eventually return to their New Orleans home and attempt to put their lives back together.

Self-described "hustlers," Kimberly and Scott make compelling subjects as they surmount daunting odds and employ their street smarts to weather the hurricane by banding together with other residents (and rescuing many from Katrina's dangerous aftermath).

Lessin and Deal, who had producer roles on Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11," adopt a fairly conventional docu approach for their segments, tracking the Roberts as they attempt to navigate the FEMA disaster-relief bureaucracy and return home. Kimberly's ground-zero home video of the storm is what really makes the film exceptional, although much of it is of such rough quality and execution that it struggles to hold up on the big screen -- a significant consideration for theatrical distribution.

Regardless of whether the film reaches its widest-possible audience, "Trouble the Water" adds a notable chapter to the narrative of Hurricane Katrina's devastation by foregrounding the experiences of some of New Orleans' most disenfranchised citizens.

Elsewhere Films and Louverture Films
Directors-producers: Tia Lessin, Carl Deal
Executive producers: Danny Glover, Joslyn Barnes, Todd Olson, David Alcaro
Directors of photography: P.J. Raval, Kimberly Roberts
Music: Robert Del Naja, Neil Davidge
Editors: T. Woody Richman, Mary Lampson
Running time -- 90 minutes
No MPAA rating