A Troubling Reminder

With mesmerizing force, a Ninth Ward woman and her camera capture the destruction of Katrina from the inside out.

Zeitgeist Films
Zeitgeist Films

There are moments in Trouble the Water, the searing new documentary on Hurricane Katrina, particularly in the hours before the hurricane lands, when you think the central character, Kimberly Rivers Roberts, just doesn’t get it. She’s got her video camera trained on her Ninth Ward block, playfully interrogating everybody about what they’re gonna do when Katrina comes roaring in. They all look around, notice the rest of the city has bailed and shrug.

“Seem like I’m the only stupid nigger that stayed,” Roberts laughs.

Trouble the Water , winner of the grand jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, opens this weekend in New York and Los Angeles. The timing is apt. The storm formed over the southeastern Bahamas on August 23, a week before it tore through the Gulf Coast.

Roberts’ blasé is haunting. But the story soon makes clear that she, in fact, gets it on a far deeper level than any of the countless observers who’ve tried to make sense of what happened to New Orleans on August 29, 2005.

Roberts’ self-shot footage and personal story drive the film. For her and the rest of the neighbors on her block, in her hood, Katrina brought a more acute version of the same challenge they already faced daily: Figuring out how to navigate the thin but bright line between optimism and fatalism, resistance and submission. They are people who must, each day, grasp, as the old prayer implores, the wisdom to know the difference between things they can change and things they cannot—because survival in walled-off, starved-out black neighborhoods has always meant focusing on the former, so you don’t drown in the latter.

And it’s clear from the outset of this gripping film that few in Roberts’ community can do much about the fact that the city has abandoned them. They’ve been told to evacuate. But they don’t have cars or money to leave. So they laugh in the face of horror. Little girls on bikes taunt the storm; old men serve up false bravado; corner drunks carry on drinking; and everybody takes up the usual front-stoop post to speculate about what tomorrow will bring.

But even as the neighbors submit to the fact that they’re stuck, they know they’ve got a remarkable weapon to deal with whatever follows. Ultimately, they survive Katrina and its aftermath on the singular strength of their shared responsibility for one another. In the face of government’s willful neglect, community stepped into the breach.

The maddening irony is that, three years later, community is the piece of New Orleans that has suffered the greatest damage—and the piece that has been most glaringly ignored in the rebuilding.

Roberts’ chilling footage on the day of the storm alone makes Trouble the Water required viewing for all Americans. It’s citizen journalism at its simple, elegant best: She looks around and documents what she sees.