In the world of documentary filmmakers, the story that results in the finished product is sometimes nothing like the story that was original sought.
Such is the case with Trouble the Water, a movie that takes the subject of Hurricane Katrina and focuses its lens through the eyes, travails and big hearts of a New Orleans couple from the Ninth Ward and a friend they meet along the ways. While Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke - a prominent Katrina documentary - deftly moved from story to story, from aspect to aspect, Trouble the Water keeps you focused on the raw story of Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott Roberts, residents of New Orleans' Ninth Ward.
Part of the uniqueness of Trouble the Waters is its two sets of filmmakers. Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, the primary filmmakers, actually descended upon New Orleans in the wake of Katrina planning to do a documentary on military folks returning Iraq to find their hometown virtually destroyed. The military refuse to cooperative, and the couple was off in search of another story.
The other filmmakers are the Roberts, who possessed their own modest video camera. The Ninth Ward couple began filming the day before the storm hit. Kimberly, whose urban vivaciousness essentially carries the film, in her own ‘hood correspondent- style, interviewed other residents of the neighborhood, many of whom are clearly aware of the potential of the storm, but like the Roberts and many others are without escape possibilities. Their intensely personal coverage continues as the storm rages, and then as broken levees' floodwaters all but swallow her home and push the couple and their family members up to their attic.
While taking some very revealing footage, it is also rife with the typical amateur camera shakes that would send irritated viewers out of the theatre doors early if it continued long into the film. Fortunately Lessin and Deal - the other filmmakers who stumbled upon them after the storm - mercifully take over the lion's share of the shooting throughout the rest of the movie, while interspersing the Roberts videography infrequently the rest of the way.
There is a certain kind of cinematic magic that can take place when documentary filmmakers throw out their project's road map and just let the subjects do the driving. The Hurricane Katrina story of the Roberts in a way is no difference from many from New Orleans' Ninth Ward - they were stuck with no way out during the storm, afterwards it all about figure out what to do about their situation.
However, the difference between their story and that of thousands of others is in not only their opportunity to tell it, but the way in which they are able to do it. There perspectives they share, the conversations they have with fellow residents and family, their encounters with officials and military are very personal and line with "keepin' it real." Along the way their story deals with aspects previously dealt with in documentaries such as the courageous heroes of the Ninth Ward as contrasted by the ineptitude of FEMA - however the perspective is shown from the particular prism of their situations, providing a poignant tone to their viewpoint.
The movie also brings out in bold relief some of the hard decisions that residents and emergency personal were confronted with in the lengthy catastrophe. And while all the Katrina documentaries (and especially Trouble the Water) inspire spirited discussions, heated debates, and dogmatic conclusions, the Roberts' story truly nails down the reality that thoughts and opinions of anyone outside of the calamity after the storm is long past is nothing more than Monday morning quarterbacking. To understand the decisions and indecisions, the action and reactions, you simply had to be there in the middle of wind-driven mess.
However, while much as been made by other film critics - some with marvel and some with derision - over the way the Roberts' story dominated the film, it does raise an inescapable question for those who analyze documentaries: To what extent was Trouble the Water truly authentic and to what extent were the Roberts (and especially the fearless Kimberly) playing to the cameras.
Clearly Kimberly saw an opportunity to tell her story and seized it. But while she and her husband are clearly cognizant of the camera outlet, there is no apparent staging of anything. Some of the encounters are too tragically or ridiculously real and defy fabrication.
There is a point of the film in which Kimberly - and aspiring rap/hip-hop artist - performs a piece she wrote that shares how she is "amazin'" in spite of the ugly cards dealt to her in life. The rap song fills in many of the blanks concerning what her life has been like and all that she is able to overcome.
The power of the film is embodied by Kimberly and her husband, who despite being members of the unofficial disenfranchised (at one point the wife poignantly notes that it's like "we lost our citizenship"), refused to bow to the dire circumstances. Rather than allowing despondency to blind her and those she is with, the film shows how her optimism helps them to see the solutions to the situations they are confronted with.
Often people such as the Roberts are ignored or glossed over. Trouble the Water shows in a strong measure that not only are there stories to be told from the lower economic reaches of society, but that there is much that can be admired and learned from them.