To see the documentary Trouble the Water is to understand why it won Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. A half-dozen films have grappled with the natural (and manmade) catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, including Spike Lee’s When the Levee’s Broke, but Trouble the Water is different. There are no interviews with experts. There is no narrator reading a script. The film is minimally stylized and allows the natural drama to unfold. Director/producers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (Fahrenheit 911, Bowling for Columbine) intended it that way. The film simply follows the lives of young, married couple Kimberly Roberts, an aspiring rap artist, and Scott Roberts, who were trapped in their Lower Ninth Ward home during the storm and attempt to rebuild their lives afterward. The result feels less like a film and more like taking a personal journey with the Roberts’ themselves.
Next American City‘s Hamida Kinge recently met Tia Lessin and Carl Deal at their office in Gowanus, Brooklyn to discuss the film, which is currently playing in theaters around the country.
Explain why you chose the approach for this documentary – — no narrator, no interviews with experts, stylistic simplicity.
TL: So often, documentaries tell the viewer what they should think with voiceover, telegraph where they are going from the start and trot out experts to interpret and contextualize what you are seeing on screen. By telling this story in a very personal way, from the inside out, with Kimberly and Scott’s strong voice and experiential footage, the story is much more emotional. It is about people. It is real. It is intimate. And she’s the expert on her own life. That’s what we wanted.
Can you talk a little bit about where Kimberly and Scott’s lives are right now?
TL: Kimberly and Scott have returned to New Orleans, but moved to the other side of the Ninth Ward — in the no flood zone, closer to the French Quarter. Scott is working in construction, rebuilding houses, and Kimberly has focused on writing and recording her music. Together they have founded a record company called Born Hustler Records, and are releasing their first CD at the end of August.
You made a comment about Kimberly’s camcorder (which captured the most astonishing footage in the film). You compared it to a Hannukah miracle.
TL: The miracle of Hannukah was that the lights were supposed to last for 24 hours but lasted for five or seven days. Kimberly’s camera’s battery was supposed to last for two hours …
CD: But she squeezed another hour out of it. She had, as she likes to say, the angels on her side.
There were so many bone-chilling moments in the film, especially the 911 call by the elderly woman trapped in her attic. What kinds of haunting things did you come across in person while in NOLA?
TL: Let me just say about the 911 calls—– we spent a long time trying to find those calls. We’d heard about them and they go on forever and those are so chilling because you don’t know whether the people lived or died. When we were down there the waters had receded so it was less about what we saw and more about what we smelled.
CD: Neither of us had spent any time in the Ninth Ward before Hurricane Katrina came but we were introduced to it on the car ride down by Scott telling us, “It’s really gonna look about the same as when we lived there.” That’s how bad the conditions were. And, as soon as you got there, it was a sensory overload, because you’re driving through this vibrant city that’s completely deserted and you see dogs and you hear dogs bark and you hear helicopters overhead, you see the occasional Humvee and the stench is practically unbearable, but other than that, it was just deserted and quiet. We didn’t see any other residents. We didn’t see any other press. It was like walking through a deserted film set.
I noticed the comments from the National Guard soldiers (about Katrina survivors) were exceedingly harsh and unsympathetic. I was a little surprised by the level of hostility. Can you articulate what you think their attitude was based in?
TL: Well first of all we taped some of the soldiers’ comments when Kimberly and Scott were not around. So I think it’s white people talking to other white people with racist, loaded language. I think that’s part of it. I think there’s also — I mean these guys were from very far away, from Oregon and Washington State, and they were there to do a job, but arrived a little too late. So I think there was a disconnect for them between what had just gone on and what they were experiencing.
CD: I think, given the environment of New Orleans at that time, a lot of these soldiers were being brought in to quote-unquote “restore order.” We greeted hundreds of soldiers coming off planes straight from Bagdhad who were saying “we might have to hold guns on American civilians now. We might have to shoot at American civilians and we don’t feel good about that. It’s one thing to shoot at insurgents, but it’s another thing to shoot at an American citizen.” So that was kind of the tenor. And I think the media kind of set up this – pitting the citizens of New Orleans against [everyone else].
TL: And you only see two images at that time the media was projecting of the residents of New Orleans. They were either these poor helpless victims or they were these criminal looters. And so Kimberly, Scott, Brian and the other people in the film — they’re survivors, they’re strong-willed, creative, resourceful people who are nobody’s victims and nobody’s criminals.
CD: Yet in many ways they fit the profile that the soldiers were looking for because they were black folks from the Ninth Ward and they clearly had been through hell.
TL: You know, the soldiers, as you said, they had come back from Bagdhad, and there’s a way that soldiers are trained to look at the enemy, of course there was no enemy there, they were just people who suffered horribly. And I think that may be sort of a residue of the way that soldiers are trained to think of civilian populations, as either the enemy or sort of victims.
One of the biggest controversies surrounding Katrina is that the city’s prisoners were left to die. So far as you know, is anything being done, or is anyone held accountable for that?
TL: No government official as you know has been held accountable for anything surrounding Katrina, from the failure to evacuate the city for the failure to shore up the levees for the failure to evacuate the hospitals. The only population that the government actually did have under their controls is the prisoners. They had the ability to actually get these guys out of there and these women and they knew it but the sheriff said, “They’re gonna stay where they belong,” I think was the quote.
CD: He stood side by side with Mayor Nagin, when Nagin announced the mandatory evacuation and when Sheriff Gusman was asked directly, “What about the prisoners in Orleans Parish?” And he said, “They’re gonna stay where they belong.”
TL: He was reelected for being a law-and-order guy. So not only has no one been held accountable, but the ACLU Prison Project has written a powerful report and critical resistance organizations have been trying to tell the stories, to get the stories out there, but it was pretty underreported.
You said you had never been to New Orleans and obviously the Ninth Ward before filming. Did you enter the Ninth Ward with any preconceived notions and if so how were they different when you left?
TL: I knew what I was seeing on TV wasn’t right, it didn’t seem right, didn’t seem accurate. So it kind of reminded me of when been to Baghdad before the war. Before Fahrenheit 911. We were actually there with a human rights group and we were filming and there are images of that in Fahrenheit. But [in Baghdad] we really expected to see a population armed to the T, ready to fight a war. It was just a few weeks before the bomb was dropped. And it was just the opposite. People were just doing their lives. –I kept going down to New Orleans expecting to see a huge government presence rebuilding, not just the levees, but the communities surrounding those levees. And we just kept coming back and there it was nothing — nothing, nothing, nothing. And you began to see more people arriving, rebuilding their own houses and it was very random and very individual. Being New Yorkers, we saw how Tribeca got rebuilt (after 9/11) very quickly. And so I think that was the most surprising thing. Because we expected that, because this is America, we’re gonna see things come around and that wasn’t the case.
CD: You would see people coming home and it’s not like there were just fewer homes to come home to but the infrastructure of New Orleans was very weak to begin with. The services, the education, the job opportunities. You just didn’t see any support for people to come home and build a life. And I think that’s why so few people have been returning.
Hamida Kinge has written about everything from food security to ocean acidification to luxury cell phones. She was a 2009 fellow of the Scripps Howard Institute on the Environment and a 2008/09 reporting fellow of the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting. She has contributed to Next American City, Grist, Philadelphia City Paper and U.R.B. domestically as well as Europe-based magazines Essential Macau and Straight No Chaser. For the past year, she has been teaching English as a foreign language to international students and business professionals. Hamida has also been a volunteer English tutor for the International Center in New York.