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.
The filmmakers, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, juxtapose Roberts' reporting from the rafters of her flooded home with footage shot by professional news camera crews and commentary and reporting from professional journalists. The contrast makes the TV "reporting" look ridiculous. As Roberts records her family clambering out of floodwaters and onto stacked furniture to break a hole in the ceiling, The Early Show ponders the storm's "wallop at the gas pump." As she interviews the kids and neighborhood matriarchs crammed into her attic, a local TV reporter plays in the rain, demonstrating how easily he can be blown over, before retreating to the safety Roberts' family couldn't buy.
When the rain subsides, Roberts keeps her camera rolling, documenting the heroic efforts of one man—a neighbor named Larry—who turns a punching bag into a floating rescue raft. He wades house-to-house, pulling elderly and disabled people to relative safety in a common home with dry upper floors. Larry even becomes the public information system the city failed to implement. He stands in the middle of the block, chest deep in water, to demonstrate the depth. "I'm taking two at a time," he shouts out. "The important thing is not to panic!"
Larry, burly and unapologetically in charge, is also the sort of man that law enforcement and reporters subsequently labeled a "looter." Trouble the Water turns that idea on its head. At every turn, Roberts and her neighbors appeal to the authorities for help and are treated like criminals. The Coast Guard leaves them in the flooded streets on the first night, but directs them to the Navy barracks. When they arrive at the barracks, the Navy sees a mob rather than a horde of stranded citizens and turns guns on them. When Roberts tries to get word to her brother in jail about her safety—and the deaths of her uncle and grandmother—she's told he doesn't have "phone privileges." It's pretty clear who the real criminals are in all of this.
Throughout the ordeal, Kim Roberts and her community refuse to submit. They can't control the storm, the Navy, the FEMA bureaucracy. But they can control how they react to it all, and they can build an organic support system to keep them all moving forward. One of the most striking things about Trouble the Water is just how confusing the relationships are—you can't tell who's family and who's not. Roberts casually refers to two different women as "moms," one of whom in turn calls Roberts a big sister, despite being old enough to be Roberts' grandmother. Roberts' biological mom, you learn in bits and pieces throughout, was addicted to drugs and died from complications of AIDS when Kim was a teen. Kim Roberts learned to survive long before Katrina hit.
Roberts' efforts to make it without the network they built at home ultimately fail. She and husband Scott made their way up to Memphis, but life was just as hard, and, without the community that they cherished in the Ninth Ward, they had to face it on their own. So they sold their dog's 10 puppies and paid their way back to New Orleans. "It was too hard to start over in a strange place," she tells the camera. "If something happened to me right around here," she waves her hand over her still devastated block, "somebody gonna do something for me. Somebody gonna call 911. If I ain't got no ride, somebody gonna give me a ride. If I need some money, well, they might not loan me no money, but they'll give me some conversation!"
She brandishes that sort of optimism throughout the film. It's less an indication of a rosy outlook than it is her knowledge that she's rooted in something. Even if she can't find security, she knows she can grasp the safety of the relationships she has built in her lifetime. And those are the vital, lifesaving connections that, three years later, are still being devastated—not by a hurricane, but by a government's criminal failure to understand their importance, to bring people home and give them the resources to rebuild their neighborhoods and their lives.
Trouble the Water may be hard to find. After premiering in New York and L.A. this weekend, it will roll out to select theaters nationwide in September and October. Many cities, many theaters may not run it, believing that audiences have moved on or have "Katrina fatigue." Demand it. Find it. Trouble the Water says as much—in many ways more—about where we are as a country than any other poltical piece that will be in wide release this fall.
Kai Wright is author of Drifting Toward Love: Black, Brown, Gay and Coming of Age.