You and Me, We Sweat and Strain
2008 // USA // Tia Lessin and Carl Deal // September 28, 2008 // Theatrical Print
A - Directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal have achieved a triumph in documentary film-making with Trouble the Water, a phenomenal, searing portrait of American survival and spirit. The directors deserve a bow for offering veterans such as Errol Morris and Werner Herzog stiff competition for the best documentary feature of 2008. However, the soul and vision of Trouble the Water's protagonist, one Kimberly Rivers Roberts, so suffuses—one might say possesses—the film, that any fair assessment must regard it as her film, at least in part. Indeed, Trouble the Water recalls Herzog's own Grizzly Man in its near-surrender of its form and content to the sizzling force of its fascinating subject. Admittedly, Lessin and Deal's stance towards Roberts is far warmer, more admiring, and more credulous than that of the German master towards Timothy Treadwell. There is a temptation to regard Trouble the Waters at least partly as "found art," given that Roberts' own amateur footage of the Lower Ninth Ward under Katrina's lash serves as the film's foundation. However, from this small seed springs a work so undeniably powerful that one can only praise the directors for revealing Trouble the Water's glittering treasures for all the world to see.
The film begins at a Red Cross shelter in September 2005, where Kimberly and Scott Roberts introduce themselves to the directors as New Orleans natives and survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Kim reveals, enthusiastically and with knowing showmanship, that she has roughly half an hour of rare, first-hand footage of the storm's devastation, captured on a handheld camcorder. Trouble the Water weaves Kim's astonishing, grainy glimpses of a drowning city with Lessin and Deal's own footage as they follow the Roberts' journey back to the Lower Ninth, then to relatives in Memphis, and then back again to New Orleans to try to rebuild their lives. The simplicity of the story is the film's appeal and also its grand illusion, for Trouble the Water deals with both the ugly reality of Katrina and the hopefulness that defies that reality. The indictment it presents is unambiguous: America's leaders left hundreds of thousands of poor citizens to die like Dark Age peasants in the face of a natural disaster. However, this scathing (yet persuasive) critique is not the heart of the film, but merely the starting point for Kim and Scott's tale of remarkable fortitude.
Kim is an inescapable presence in the film, perpetually behind the camera or in front of it. An aspiring hip-hop artist and a bit of a hustler, Kim serves as a tuning fork for Trouble the Water. She vibrates to her own pitch, and the film can only follow along and find the harmony. To say that the strength of the film lies in her authenticity—her blackness? femininity? poverty?—is woefully off the mark. It is obvious from the moment we meet her that the Kim is not a pristine anthropological specimen meant to embody the Big Easy's plight. She is shamelessly, joyously, fiercely involved in the film. At different points throughout Trouble the Water, she serves as an interviewer, interpreter, guide, narrator, journalist, performer, cinematographer, and counselor, not to mention a proxy for our own shame and frustrations.
I asked myself, "Where did they find this woman?" before I remembered that, no, she found them. Scrappy, graceful self-promoter that she is, Kim evinces a compelling appreciation for the drama of her own story even as it is unfolding, a drama that runs deeper than mere gaping at disaster. She wanders through her neighborhood prior to landfall and interrogates friends and strangers about their plans for riding out the storm. She breathlessly repeats the date and that dread name—"Katrina"—well before the extent of the hurricane's calamitous reach is apparent, as if she knows that the storm will be talked about for generations to come. She speaks earnestly and awestruck about the strength of her community and how hardships bring people together. She sculpts the sorrows of New Orleans into her own life story, rapping to the camera over a track about her unlikely survival and boundless strength.
Rippling through Trouble the Water is the seductive and emotionally overwhelming notion that Kimberly Roberts is the quintessential face of twenty-first century America. Here is a woman who is powerful, courageous, scarred, dauntless, spiritual, sentimental, media-savvy, and self-aware. She is a woman longing to simultaneously start over and find her way home. This, not Trouble the Water's peppering of justifiable liberal rage, is what makes it so engaging. Which isn't to say the the film's gestures towards the indignant polemic sub-genre are ineffective. Lessin has served as a producer for a sizable slice of Michael Moore's output, but his influence is only apparent in the film's bemused, profoundly bitter awareness of the apathy infecting America's ruling class. In contrast to Moore's winking camera-hunger, here the directors only rarely intrude on Trouble the Water in any overt manner.
Lessin and Deal largely permit Kim and Scott to tell their tale, resisting the urge to editorialize or file down the serrated edges of their protagonists. The directors coax out the couple's complexity—a fabulous, human complexity, absent any sort of haughty exceptionalism—so smoothly, with such alert eyes and ears, that it seems effortless. (The bits of ironic news footage spliced in here and there suggest a clumsier hand.) Indeed, while the narrative thrust is unmistakably Kim's, Lessin and Deal leave their mark on the film, often in the way they cunningly convey revealing details. The cherubic Scott carries a deep scar on his left cheek, and I idly wondered: Would its origin ever be explained? Then, near the film's conclusion, Kim explains her husband's wound in her own way, dropping an oblique line into one of her songs that sheds fresh light on the couple's relationship. That moment, and the confessional character to it, is Kim's, but its placement in the film is a testament to Lessin and Deal's marvelous storytelling instincts.
Rarely do socially conscious documentaries about recent events rise above the shackles of outrage, and rarely do they have a purpose beyond motivating already sympathetic viewers to political action. Trouble the Water will persist, I believe, as a work of documentary art that transcends its proximal subject matter. It stands as an essential primary and secondary source in the history of American life, and also as an affecting glimpse of human resilience, one that is both uncommonly noble and strangely familiar. Kim and Scott, despite all the mistakes and tribulations in their lives, represent what we aspire to be, the kind of people we were always told America was made of: the people who start swimming when the waters start rising.