Zeitgeist Films. Kimberly Roberts and her husband, Scott Roberts, struggle in New Orleans in the documentary "Trouble the Water."
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Published: August 22, 2008
If Kimberly Roberts, the dynamo at the center of the documentary "Trouble the Water,” wasn’t a big woman with a great big mouth, her video images of Hurricane Katrina and the floodwaters that washed away her world in 2005 might have ended up as just another pixelated smear on YouTube. Happily for her and the rest of us, the filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, both of whom have done time working with Michael Moore, realized that Ms. Roberts was a dream of a documentary subject. She didn’t just fill the frame with her outsize personality and outlaw swagger, she also shook it up with raw images of snatched, saved and lost lives.
Ms. Roberts didn’t wait out the storm from her home in the Lower Ninth Ward; she chased it. Roaming her neighborhood on foot and bicycle, she videotaped the gathering dark clouds and her stranded neighbors with a newly bought camera, watching with mounting concern as the drizzle grew into a deluge. Her rough, untutored camerawork has an ugliness and urgency that only add to the escalating sense of chaos and unease. As her sightlines roughly shift from one fugitive image to the next — wary adults, giggly children, nervous dogs, a stop sign that will soon be almost entirely under water — you can feel the pressure of the moment. Excitement courses through her free-ranging chatter and the palsied, swerving visuals.
Ms. Roberts and her husband, Scott Roberts, a man with a gentle smile and a long, thin scar grooved into a cheek, made it out of their rickety attic alive, along with some neighbors. They also made their way to a Red Cross shelter, where they met Mr. Deal and Ms. Lessin, yet another couple, though one on the prowl for a story, not salvation (in a way they got both). The filmmakers had flown from New York to Louisiana intending to follow National Guard troops who, in returning from Iraq, had left one disaster for another. A mouthpiece for the National Guard shut down their access, but before the storm chasers could pack up, Ms. Roberts pounced, asking if they wanted a look at what she had caught on video.
Mr. Deal and Ms. Lessin jumped in turn and began following after these gregarious refugees, tagging alongside the Robertses and their sad-eyed new friend, Brian, also from the Lower Ninth, including to Tennessee. There one of Ms. Roberts’s hosts tearfully vows that her son, who has thoughts of joining the Army, will not fight for a country that seems to have forgotten its black and its poor. Ms. Roberts, who often puts her faith in God but tends to take matters into her own capable hands, expresses little anger at the government. She isn’t especially at peace with her country, just resigned, so much so that she almost shrugs when she delivers the movie’s most devastating line, saying it felt as if “we lost our citizenship.”
That’s about as on-message as the movie gets, though of course Katrina itself carries the stench of politics, as a clip of a dazed-looking Michael D. Brown, who was then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, affirms. Save for some righteous indignation at the close, “Trouble the Water” makes its points without didacticism, perhaps guided by the Robertses, who are interested in surviving, not grandstanding. That’s true even weeks after the storm, when they, Brian and the filmmakers return to New Orleans, where the streets are clogged with mud and debris. A dead dog rots in the sun, and inside one shabby home the body of Ms. Roberts’s uncle bloats in the heat. She goes inside, while the camera idles behind at a respectful distance.
Ms. Roberts is such a charismatic figure that she might have overwhelmed this movie. But Mr. Deal and Ms. Lessin have the big picture in mind, not just a personal portrait. Working with the editors T. Woody Richman and Mary Lampson, they have created an ingeniously fluid narrative structure that, when combined with Ms. Roberts’s visuals, news material and their own original 16-millimeter film footage, ebbs and flows like great drama. The early part of the movie is dominated by the Robertses’ seeking higher ground in their home as the water rises from street to porch and beyond, while the remainder follows them as they sift through the storm’s wake, searching for a new start in a city that has all but shut down.
Though her street savvy helped her survive natural and unnatural disasters, it was a familiar love of the camera that turned Ms. Roberts, an aspiring musician, into a documentary star. (That’s her rapping over the final credits under her nom de hip-hop, Black Kold Madina.) As it does for a lot of young Americans — she is 24 when the movie opens — being in front of a camera seems perfectly natural to her, something close to a generational birthright. Left motherless and impoverished during adolescence, she had probably been looking for attention for a long time. It took the sight of poor and black Americans desperately waving for help from rooftops and bridges, though, before she received her close-up. I just hope this movie gives her more than 15 minutes.
TROUBLE THE WATER
Opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
Produced and directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal; directors of photography, P. J. Raval and Kimberly Roberts; edited by T. Woody Richman; music by Davidge/Del Naja; released by Zeitgeist Films. In Manhattan at the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. This film is not rated.