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Live Through This

Arresting Documentary Follows a Couple Who Endures Hurricane Katrina

Carl Deal and Tia Lessen rose above their initial premise for a Katrina documentary falling through.

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 10/29/2008

When New York-based documentary filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal arrived in Louisiana two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the coast in 2005, they were planning to tell the story of the Louisiana National Guard troops who had just returned from Iraq. But then they met Kimberly Rivers Roberts, one of the tens of thousands of people who stayed in New Orleans and were trapped there after the levees broke. Two weeks before the storm, Roberts, an aspiring hip-hop artist, had purchased a used video camera for $20. Roberts recorded video of her neighborhood the day before the storm hit, and continued recording after the levees broke and she was forced to seek higher ground.

Lessin, who helped produce Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine, had been forced to abandon the original project when the National Guard, after learning of her work on Fahrenheit, closed off access. After seeing Roberts' almost three hours of videotape, Deal and Lessin decided to make their documentary about Roberts and her husband, Scott, just two people who were struggling to get their pre-storm lives back. Trouble the Water, which won Sundance's Grand Jury prize this year, was the result.

"We used about 15 minutes [of Roberts' videotape] in the film," Lessin says, speaking from her office in New York. "The images [of Katrina] you saw on TV were about a mile high. They were pretty far removed. They were from the perspective of the outside looking in, and this is from the inside looking out."

The footage, which takes up much of the opening half-hour of the film, starts off innocuously enough, as Roberts, who is a natural for the camera, introduces her neighborhood, the Lower Ninth Ward, by riding around on a bicycle with a camera in tow. But the storm soon arrives, setting off an expected chain of events that, as Roberts captures with her camera, is more terrifying than tragic in the first uncertain days after the storm.

Even so, Lessin avoids using images of Katrina that have received ample airtime since 2005. "We wanted to stay away from the images people had been accustomed to seeing," she says. "There's only one or two moments like the convention center drive-bys. We don't have shots of bloated bodies floating in the waters. We really tried to avoid images of helpless victims."

Lessin says she and Deal started the process with the intention of finding characters who lived through the storm. Although the documentary doesn't advertise its politics as brazenly as Moore's work, or Spike Lee's Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke, Lessin believes Trouble carries a more subtle political message. "This is a very different film from Fahrenheit," she says. "It's passionate, showing African-Americans not as criminals, but as heroes and survivors. That's a very political move. We wanted to make an emotional film that would get very intimate. We constructed a story that in the end was very uplifting. Katrina was not a natural disaster, but a man-made disaster."

In fact, most of the documentary is given over to Roberts' attempt to rebuild her life after Katrina. Relying on government as well as family support, Roberts is determined to get her life on track, in spite of roadblocks that were almost as daunting before the storm as they were afterward. "Through the story of Kim and Scott, we see that government has been failing people all their lives," Lessin says. "That's how Kim and Scott's story becomes so powerful."

At the same time, Trouble doesn't press its case that the government failed to do its job in the storm's aftermath. Although Lessin captures the frustration Roberts and her neighbors felt when a nearby Navy base, in the process of being shut down, refused to house them a few days after Katrina, it also shows Roberts' appreciation for government help when it finally comes.

But Lessin didn't feel the need to attack the Bush administration. "It was the worst disaster in American history, and the [Bush administration] failed," she says, noting that the media coverage of Katrina was far more critical of Bush than its coverage of the Iraq War. "We didn't need to spend any time in the film going over that point. That's where everyone starts with the story. As far as we were concerned, we didn't have to do that."

As powerful as the story of Kim and Scott Roberts is, Trouble the Waters' success hangs on the footage Roberts shot in the middle of the storm. And Lessin is glad Roberts' footage was able to be used in a documentary, rather than sold to a cable news network or put on YouTube. "Kimberly gives us images of the storm and the floodwaters rising from ground zero," she says. "It's like nothing you've ever seen before."

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