When she bought her video camera, aspiring rapper Kim Rivers Roberts didn't plan on becoming the star of a documentary movie. She wasn't planning on spending the next few nights in her attic either, but as it happened, she did. Roberts bought her camera the day before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, her hometown. The day before the levees broke and spilled torrents of water through Roberts' Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, Roberts cruised around on her bicycle, with her camera, chatting up the neighbors, most of whom lacked the transportation and means to follow the mandatory evacuation orders issued by the city. She kept on shooting as the storm raged. When the waters came, filling their house, Kim and her husband Scott went to the attic, taking stranded neighbors -- and the camera -- with them. To hear the neighbors tell it later, Kim and Scott saved their lives.
In Trouble the Water, documentarians Tia Lessen and Carl Deal follow Kim and Scott as they try to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the storm. Loud, gregarious Kim finds the filmmakers and offers them her video footage -- there are eerie, wrenching scenes of rising waters and a disappearing city, but also scenes of neighborliness and heroism, and a do-it-yourself spirit that extended to saving lives when no one else could, or would, do it. It's not just Roberts' video footage of the storm that makes Trouble the Water an engrossing, unique film, however. It's Roberts herself, and her outsized personality, her natural charisma, her remarkable resilience, her boundless optimism, and her indefatigable, enthusiastic chatter. She's a star about to be born (you can hear her rapping over the closing credits), a whirlwind of energy, and dogged about getting her story out there.
There's more than one story there, and Trouble the Water deftly weaves the tale of Kim Roberts' difficult childhood and wayward youth (she was 24 at the time of the storm) together with her Katrina footage, creating a portrait of a strong but interestingly imperfect woman, and how she got that way. Lessen and Deal, both of whom have worked with Michael Moore in the past, intercut Roberts' one-of-a-kind footage with news footage of the storm and its aftermath, along with fascinating coverage of the strange, tense interactions between NOLA residents and the military troops occupying their city. Unlike Moore's work, Trouble the Water is not especially polemical or didactic, nor does it have to be. The pictures of the human tragedy that followed Katrina pretty much tell the story, and scenes of then-FEMA director Michael Brown (fiddling while New Orleans drowns) defending his agency, or the president defending his lack of action (and attention), don't require any additional commentary to make the blood boil and the heart ache all over again. Roberts' quickie video verite portrait of her world -- a part of New Orleans neglected both before and after the storm -- is vibrant, lively and homey, revealing a neighborhood troubled by crime and poverty, to be sure, but also a place filled with families and friends, a genuine community. It's a particularly intimate look at exactly who and what were lost when the waters raged. It reveals, like nothing else can, the exact toll of the storm on the people who paid that toll.
When the Robertses, with a newfound friend Brian, return to the Lower Ninth Ward, they find a ghost town full of houses stripped to their bones, utter devastation, and dead bodies. The film follows them as they try to make a clean start somewhere else -- they hope that, just as the storm obliterated their neighborhood, erasing the Lower Ninth Ward from the map, it might also erase their pasts, and transgressions they'd just as soon leave behind them. Trouble the Water looks forward, with the Robertses, and looks backwards too, revealing just how it is that an event as terrible as Hurricane Katrina could be, for those who have nothing to lose, both a blessing and a curse.