Trouble the Water, directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal

Trouble the Water, directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal

Tom Jennings recommends this Hurricane Katrina documentary as a superior example of genuine ‘reality TV’

No Bridge Over ... Film review – Tom Jennings
September 2005: two regular Michael Moore collaborators reached Louisiana shortly after Hurricane Katrina, planning to examine National Guard redeployment from Baghdad to New Orleans’ new warzone. Instead, rebuffed by authorities fearing Fahenheit 9/11-style crusades, they stumbled on Kimberley Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott flooded out of the Lower Ninth Ward. Buying a secondhand camcorder just before the evacuation order – which, like many thousands, they had no wherewithal to obey – Kim had decided to film their experiences during and after the storm. The gripping footage from its eye and destruction in its wake – full of CNN-savvy pans and angles and peppered with canny commentary and testimony from locals, friends and family – then formed the core of a cinema documentary following them to exile in Tennessee and finally back to their ravaged ’hood. Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s Oscar-nominated Trouble the Water (USA, 2007) subsequently won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Festival before its UK television premiere on More4 on 25th February.
The utter institutional neglect at all levels, from Bush and his crony Michael Brown of the Federal Emergency Management Agency all the way down the government hierarchy, is by now well-known, and the mortal horrors facing the abandoned poor of New Orleans extensively documented – but nowhere else are these phenomena shown with quite the direct, bottom-up intensity of this film. An oppositional political logic thus grows out of the Roberts’ earlier cynical fatalism in tandem with anger and determination channelled into helping as many fellow survivors as practicable. From shots of disinterested police to submerging ‘Stop’ roadsigns; attempts to float the young and elderly out on makeshift rafts being turned back at gunpoint from empty naval barracks; Kim’s younger brother Wink (inside for a misdemeanour) recounting a jailful abandoned with no food or water; the haphazard bureaucratic mess of relief efforts later, whether to collect dead neighbours, get tapwater reconnected, or grant financial aid for the displaced – all the story’s dimensions weave into a profoundly moving but unsentimental journey of kind, likeable and charismatic folk struggling to overcome.
‘Troubled waters’ is indeed an appropriate metaphor for the whole saga, not just Katrina’s aftermath but the entire trajectory of American society’s increasing numbers consigned to official scrap-heaps irrespective of convenient ‘natural’ or financial catastrophes. And, as repeatedly emphasised in the film, ordinary people now realise more explicitly that lack of resources leaves you with ‘no government’ – except as a hostile force with entirely separate interests. Another recent documentary, on US national debt (I.O.U.S.A., dir. Patrick Creadon, 2008), showed – among countless scandals – federal accountants uncovering massive theft and fraud of FEMA funds paying for top management necessities like cars, vacations, champagne, lap dances and porn films. Not ‘trickle-down’ or even ‘trickle-up’ economics but funds veritably flooding along faultlines of power, uncannily negatively correlating with the deluge afflicting New Orleans ghettoes. Nevertheless, in vignettes of dignified courtesy shown to military and government personnel prevented from providing proper assistance on the ground, Trouble the Water carefully highlights the understanding among survivors, evacuees and relatives that the causes are systemic.
The selfless heroism and humility of the film’s subjects in caring for and about each other, including those previously shunned, also effortlessly contradicts preferred media hysteria concerning pathological criminality [1] as well as default modes of liberal charitability for helpless victims. The latter tendency pervades other prominent film accounts of the events, like Spike Lee’s heartbreaking visual testament in the four-hour When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, and Greg MacGillivray’s Hurricane on the Bayou (both 2006) meticulously detailing the ecological significance. Surveying the lower-budget progressive filmmakers flocking in since autumn 2005, Dennis Lim’s ‘The Angry Flood and the Stories in Its Wake’ [2] pinpoints the main dilemma of “the emerging genre of Hurricane Katrina cinema” as outsiders objectifying Louisiana citizens – in effect, reproducing in representational forms their supposed passivity in the face of the storm itself [3]. Therefore Lessin and Deal aptly foreground community self-activity and cultural expression even while Kim and Scott are forthright about the price paid for prior urban decay and disintegration, including them both having in the past been low-level drug-dealers.
Moreover in Come Hell Or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster (Basic Civitas Books, 2006), Michael Eric Dyson notes that the only significant remaining records of life in the drowned zone are music videos by Southern rappers; the latter also being the most prompt and vociferous celebrities to plunge straightaway into protest and aid activities. But, given the persistent strength of local culture even in appalling circumstances, it’s fitting that the film score’s versions of ‘Wade in the Water’ by the legendary Dr John and contemporary R&B/gospel duo Mary Mary are trumped with four blistering tracks by Kim in (then amateur) gangsta rap guise as Black Kold Madina [4]. Her fortitude and determination will doubtless come in handy, with Trouble the Water’s summarising captions stressing that:
“billions of federal rebuilding dollars have not been disbursed; rents in the city have doubled and so has the homeless population; thousands of livable public housing units are being demolished; most African-Americans have not returned while most white residents have; the majority of the city’s public schools are deemed academic failures; Louisiana’s incarceration rate is still the highest in the world; and the rebuilt levees in New Orleans remain flawed and vulnerable”.
So it’s heartening that the final sequence shows Kim and Scott at a boisterous demo at City Hall, complete with trad-jazz band in trademark funereal and celebratory modes, signalling new potential with fewer illusions. Next time it might be the grass-roots troubling the waters.
1. lucidly interpreted by Slavoj Zizek in ‘The Subject Supposed to Loot and Rape: Reality and Fantasy in New Orleans’, In These Times, 20 October, 2005; see also James Lee Burke’s hard-boiled post-Katrina crime thriller The Tin Roof Blowdown (Orion Books, 2007) and my analysis in ‘CSI: The Big Sleazy’ (Variant 31, 2008;
2. New York Times, 15th August, 2008 (
3. raising general questions of ‘objectivity’ in documentary strategies – also discussed in relation to Fahrenheit 9/11 in ‘Extracting the Michael’ (Variant 21, 2004), and social-realist cinema in ‘Hunting, Fishing, and Shooting the Working Classes’ (Variant 34, 2009).
4. namely, ‘Amazing’, ‘Hustle and Struggle’, ‘Bone Gristle’, and the closing credits accompaniment ‘Trouble the Waters’. Her CD is now available, after the original masters were lost in storm-damage, via the Roberts’ own independent label (
Trouble the Water is released on DVD on 27th April, priced £12.99.
Flm review published in Freedom, Vol. 70, No. 7, April 2009.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:

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Tom Jennings
Apr 18 2009 18:44


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