Trouble the Water

Trouble The Water


Trouble the Water- Robyn Hillman-Harrigan

No human spirit, all toughness aside, could withstand watching Trouble the Water without tears of empathy, followed by boiling anger, growing conviction and the commitment to respond. Filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, consistently credit this feeling of good will fueled by a desire to help, as what motivated them to race to the gold coast in the aftermath of Katrina. The long time collaborators with Michael Moore had experienced a similar impetus towards action after 9/11. Turning their lens outwards on their own Brooklyn neighborhood, they made The Family Divided, a compelling short about the backlash of racism and unjust deportations which affected many American-Muslims. Determined to react artfully and effectively, Lessin and Deal, armed with their cameras found themselves in New Orleans in search of a story.


“Everyone was doing what they could. School teachers sent school supplies, doctors sent medicine and as filmmakers, this is what we could do. We wanted to make an emotional film, which would offer insight into this tragedy.” Lessin expressed. “We saw a newspaper article about the Louisiana National Guard and learned that they were in Iraq, which explained why they were nowhere to be found during the storm. We decided to go down to central Louisiana to film these guys, as they were arriving back from war to their crisis afflicted home. We had permission to be there, but after a while, The National Guard didn’t like the questions we were asking and they shut us down.


Without a story to continue working on, providence struck as Kimberly and Scott Roberts came upon Lessin and Deal at a Red Cross Shelter, where the filmmakers were gathering footage. As Lessin describes it, “They spotted our cameras, came up to us and asked us to tell their story.” Exactly the type of personal narrative that the New York filmmakers had been looking for had just fallen directly into their laps.


The Roberts had been among the many residents of New Orleans’ poorest areas, who were unable to afford evacuation. Many did not have cars, extra money for bus or plane tickets, or the ability to afford accommodation in other cities. The government did not provide free departure buses, despite prior knowledge that the hurricane would devastate parts of the city and that the levees would not sustain the water.


In her neighborhood, Kim shot shaky home video footage the day prior to and during the storm. She recorded her and her neighbors experience trapped in the roof of a small house, with only meager food supplies on which to survive. Recordings of 911 calls have since revealed that rescue workers were not sent in response to their appeals for help. Instead, the residents of the lower ninth ward helped each other, especially the courageous Roberts clan. Additionally, after the storm the couple learned, through the stories of close friends and relatives, about the atrocities that were committed by the state towards prisoners and hospital patients, both of whom were not sufficiently evacuated.


“We wanted to give rise to their voice.” Deal said. “Kim and Scott were the best first hand correspondents, well equipped to really tell the story, and we wanted to extend that image more. We bolstered their footage with other home video recordings, and used voice over on top of some of the news footage to make it look like Kim’s.” “We wanted the film to be unconventional,” Lessin added, “Not conventional verite, certainly not traditional historic storytelling or in war photography style and not entirely personal narrative, yet very subjective. It’s kind of a hybrid.”


“We wanted to tell an emotional story in a personal way,” Deal said. “Because we were feeling emotional about how badly people are treated in this country. After September 11 when there was nothing but good will floating around the government squandered it by going to war. We wanted to harness this good will, while it was still present. People already knew that what had happened in response to Katrina was wrong. They were well aware of what had gone wrong. Rather than reiterate those facts, we chose to be in the emotional moment, and to convey the feeling.”


This moment of realization that you can do something meaningful in a time of crisis, to connect with a proactive, cooperative spirit, is one that Scott talks a lot about in the film. It seems as if he and Kim suddenly recognized their agency and ability to serve as pillars of their fast disintegrating community. However, those who know the couple believe otherwise; it seems that this wonderful pair had long been serving the community in whatever way they could.


“So many people lost everything, their homes and families.” Lessin said. “It is not exactly the time that you expect people to rise above it all, but the truth is that Kim and Scott lived in a community that had failed them all of their lives. They were used to having to be the first response for problems that were occurring in their community. The government had long since abandoned the lower ninth ward. At least a quarter century of right wing attacks on social services set the groundwork for the poverty in their community. So many of the basic things that our country is supposed to look out for, safety, health, environmental and market regulations, civil rights, had all fallen by the wayside. This was the trajectory of their lives.”


Indeed, the scenes that show Kim riding through the neighborhood, pre-storm, affirm her status as caring community member. She knows the names and stories of each neighbor, shop owner, and even homeless junkie. Memorably, she warns one such man to take shelter. Later the film viewer finds out that he was one of the many who died after being unable to leave the city. However, Kim herself, also speaks about the hardships she has endured at various times in life, which have led her to take desperate measures, including selling drugs. Aiding their neighbors and emerging as true leaders, seems to have catalyzed a process of continued change for the Roberts.


According to Deal, “This film was about perspective as much as anything, by stepping outside of their everyday world, Kim and Scott were able to look back in and see themselves in an enhanced manner. They could understand the better parts of themselves and by seeing things in this affirmative light, multiply the positives in their lives. They were the same people they had always been, except more self-assured and hopeful.”


Their lives have continued to change since the release of the film. They have been touring around the country with Trouble the Water and had an especially rarefied experience when it screened in New Orleans. “They received recognition from their own community regarding their talent and their work.” Lessin said. “The moment in the film where Kim receives praise from one of the older women, who she had rescued during the storm, really meant a great deal to her. Kim often signifies this as the moment in the film, which most touched her. That woman gave her the recognition that no one had ever given her before.” Kim and Scott have also had a child since the filming and have started Born Hustler Records, a record company that promotes Kim’s excellent music. Scott also continues to rebuild houses in their community.


New Orleans is still in desperate need of support, yet ever capable of seeing light within this crisis, Deal referred again to a feeling of collective goodwill. “That feeling still exists in terms of the gulf coast.” He said. “The government has forgotten but so many people are still going down there.” Lessin agreed, “Katrina has brought the Bush Administration down, and the economy has nailed the coffin shut. Fortunately, I believe that Obama can bring back hope. He is a man with vision, integrity and intelligence.”

Although Trouble the Water won the Grand Jury Prize at both Sundance and Full Frame, it was not an easy film to get made. “It was a struggle to get this film about poor African Americans produced. We were told to get white characters and get back to people. We have gotten recognition, but it was been very difficult to get it into theatres in front of wider audiences. Although our producers are great, they have limited resources, and we want as many people to see it as possible, preferably before the election.” Said Lessin.


The filmmakers have taken their commitment to exposure as far as starting a special fund to ensure that school children from underprivileged districts can see the film at a greatly reduced admission price. More information about this program and others can be found at . People who lack understanding regarding what occurred after Hurricane Katrina, or who simply seek inspiration and a deeper grasp of the politics of race and poverty in this country, will be educated and galvanized by this film. Lessin and Deal are not sure what the theme of their next project will be, but they promise that it will be another politically relevant film.