The popularity of digital video cameras was supposed to give voice to disenfranchised filmmakers. Artists from impoverished or ignored groups could use cheaper technology to make an end-run around the system. It hasn't turned out that way. I've seen far more fake eyewitness movies, a la Cloverfield, than ones offering the true perspective of real people.
Trouble the Water is a powerful exception that testifies to the strength and authenticity of amateur filmmaking. The documentary's first third could be nicknamed The Blair Hurricane Project as it shows the home movies of a married couple in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward as they endure Katrina, flooding and civic collapse. Trouble the Water uses the you-are-there footage stunningly well, but also steps back to show how the disaster brought out the worst in government yet the best in human character.
Trouble the Water won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and the story of its discovery is already turning into indie film legend. Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, who worked on Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, were filming the Katrina clean-up efforts when Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband, Scott, a pair of self-described "hustlers" and sometime drug dealers, approached them. We see Kimberly brag about her hurricane video, claiming, "Nobody got what I got."
Deal and Lessin were surprised to discover that Kimberly's footage lived up to her hype. Using a $20 digital camera, Kimberly chronicled the day of the hurricane, and the evacuation of her neighborhood, even though she and her husband, like many of her neighbors, had no vehicle. We see the torrential rains come in, follow the Robertses into their leaky attic and witness the flooding of their street after a nearby levee fails.
Kimberly's running commentary enhances her shaky footage. She proves to have an irrepressible gift of gab that ranges from genial jokes to shocked exclamations at the disaster to prayers of thanks for their survival. After her self-made movie runs out, more than half of Trouble the Water finds Deal and Lessin following the Robertses in the aftermath as they retrace their steps, wait for FEMA relief checks and try to start over. When the film switches from first person to third person, as it were, it loses some immediacy but gains in scope.
Trouble the Water affirms how Katrina captured shameful failures in public institutions. Scott describes being part of a group of now homeless citizens turned away at gunpoint from shelter at a half-empty naval base (a shocking anecdote that the filmmakers could've fleshed out more). 911 operators tell desperate callers "There is no rescue team." Most of the relief workers show sympathy, but one serviceman remarks, with a shockingly callous smile, "Most civilian people, they have no concept how to survive."
Yet the acts of unexpected courage and kindness reveal Hurricane Katrina's silver lining. One of the Robertses' neighbors becomes a local hero by using a large punching bag, of all things, as a floatation device to ferry stranded people to safety. The Robertses end up driving 25 people out of the city in a truck and find shelter with relatives, eventually attempting to make a fresh start in Memphis.
For a poor, uneducated couple who admittedly lived on the wrong side of the law, the Robertses repeatedly confound our expectations. They seem to have a happy, supportive marriage, and Scott speaks candidly about his poverty and decision to sell drugs to get by: "I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy." And just when you think you've gotten to know them, Kimberly launches into an autobiographical rap song and shows that she's an aspiring musician with impressive chops.
Any new documentary about Hurricane Katrina faces steep competition from Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, a wrenching, sweeping account of the disaster from top to bottom. Trouble the Water measures up to the earlier film with the strength of its narrow focus. Collaborating with the Robertses, Deal and Lessin personalize our perceptions of Katrina with a harrowing, bittersweet and inspirational lesson in how to keep your head above water.