In mid-August, 2005, Kimberly Roberts, a 24-year-old New Orleans native, bought a Sony Handycam for $20 from a man on the street, with the vague hope of recording something she could sell to the news. Living in a Ninth Ward neighborhood ravaged by murder and drugs, Roberts witnessed tabloid-news material on a nearly daily basis.
One week later, Hurricane Katrina came ashore, and she had a new subject entirely.
By the storm's end, Roberts had recorded hours of footage, much of which was taken from the vantage point of her attic, where she and her husband, Scott, huddled along with 10 of their neighbors. Now, three years later, their harrowing experience can be seen in Trouble the Water, a feature-length film that won the Grand Jury Prize for documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival and is being released nationally in August. Uncompromising and heartfelt, Trouble the Water follows the Robertses through the storm and their struggle for recovery. "People are congratulating us for making this film and being so brave, but it's just who we are," says Kim. "We're not actors; this wasn't set up. This is the truth."
Before Katrina hit, Kim and Scott were just two of many anonymous, struggling New Orleanians, coping with the hardships of the inner city. Kim was an aspiring rap artist, Scott a tire technician. Once they got word of Katrina's impending landfall, the couple attempted to rent a car and flee (their own car had been stolen two weeks earlier), but they were refused. "If you had money [before Katrina], you could get out of any situation," says Scott, 33. "If you didn't, you were history."
|We're not actors; this wasn't set up. This is the truth.|
By storm's end, the couple had managed to escape the city, along with 30 other survivors, in the back of a panel truck headed for a Red Cross shelter in Alexandria, Louisiana. At the same shelter, a pair of Brooklyn-based filmmakers, Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (producers of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11), were shooting a documentary about New Orleans-born National Guard members returning to their devastated hometown. After the Robertses boldly introduced themselves and showed Deal and Lessin their footage, the producers scrapped their plan and began documenting the couple's post-Katrina lives. "The more time we spent with them," says Lessin, "the more we realized that the film needed to not only be about their Hurricane Katrina journey, but their survival."
The filmmakers followed the couple for two weeks as they returned to New Orleans only to find that promised government assistance was difficult to come by. Trouble the Water focuses a lens on the racial and economic fissures that have always been a part of New Orleans life, but which Katrina split wide open. One white 20-something National Guardsman, in response to aggressive requests for help from New Orleans's devastated poor, comments that "these people have no concept on how to survive." Later, a friend of Roberts offers an unintentional counterpoint, telling her son, who is thinking of joining the military, that he shouldn't "fight for a country that doesn't give a damn about him."
Trouble the Water is at once a window into the struggles faced by poor New Orleanians and an indictment of government efforts to help them. Soldiers with M16 rifles turn away Scott and other survivors when they seek help at the U.S. Naval Support Activity center; a FEMA employee tells the Robertses that their promised $2,000 check has been lost. "In this country, people who come from poverty are forgotten," says Scott. "We just hope that this film can change that, even if only slightly."
It's easy to see the film as an inspirational tale of obstacles overcome, but that would be overlooking a deeper, more troubling message: Even three years after Katrina, the damage is still palpable, and will take generations to fix. "This film tells people, ‘Don't depend on your government,'" says Kim. She and Scott are living again in New Orleans, where they have started a record label. "Don't depend on anybody but your family, and try to be in the position where you can help more than yourself."