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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Trouble the Water

Another of the Best Documentary nominees that presses hot political buttons is Trouble the Water. Documentarians Tia Lessin and Carl Deal headed down to New Orleans a few days after Hurricane Katrina struck there in 2005, and in a stroke of cinematic serendipity they stumbled across Kimberly and Scott Roberts at a Red Cross shelter. They had found their story.

The cluster fuck that proceeded and followed the storm is well known to many around the world--an evacuation order was given, but no public transportation was arranged for residents who didn't have the money or vehicle to get out. The Roberts' stayed behind, and Kimberly, an aspiring rap singer, decided to document things on her video camera (she hoped to sell something to the media, or as she termed it, "white people"). The before footage, in which she wanders a Ninth Ward that is largely empty but still has many of her friends and relatives, is spooky given what we know is coming. She finds an uncle of hers passed out from drink on his front steps--he would die during the storm.

After the storm hits Kimberly keeps shooting even as she and her husband and neighbors have to go to the attic, the floodwater forcing them higher. A neighbor uses a punching bag as a floatation device to rescue other neighbors. When the waters recede, though, that's just the beginning of their problems. They try to find refuge in a Naval base that is almost empty, but the sailors there hold them off at gunpoint, saying they have to protect the government's interests.

Lessin and Deal document the struggle of survivors to get government assistance, and show quite clearly that those who are poor or black are easily forgotten. When the Roberts' finally get to Memphis to a cousin taking them in, the cousin tearfully realizes "if you have no status or no money, you have no government." A man who was living in a church as part of an addiction program is ineligible for funds because he can't prove New Orleans residence. The bureaucracy is as devastating as the rain and wind.

For all the outrage, the Roberts' are great characters, their optimism never flagging, mostly due to their faith and their family ties. A grandmother dies when she is abandoned at a New Orleans hospital, but we hear she had 76 grandchildren, and it seems they all take care of each other. Kimberly refers to all women in the neighborhood of a certain age as "Ma," and she takes care of them accordingly.

Try and watch this film dispassionately when the soundtrack plays 911 recordings of people calling for rescue, and they are told that no one can help them. One woman is trapped in her attic, the waters rising, and she is unable to break a hole in the roof. "So I'm going to die then," she tells the operator.

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