The making of heroes at the time of Katrina

The Baltimore Sun

Trouble the Water, a documentary about Hurricane Katrina fashioned partly from footage shot inside New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward before, during and after the storm, is enraging and inspiring. It boasts the miraculous quality of finding a letter in a bottle and discovering that its authors are alive.

Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband, Scott, longtime residents of the 9th Ward, found themselves facing disaster on their own after Mayor Ray Nagin put evacuation orders into effect without providing sufficient transportation or information to citizens who lacked cars. Roberts decided she would document her plight on a camcorder she bought for $20 on the street. She recorded indelible images of the catastrophe that destroyed her neighborhood.

Kimberly and Scott, up to that point, were not solid citizens - she admits that she was a drug dealer. But in the course of this movie, they demonstrate that they are tremendous neighbors and gifted human beings. The movie filters events through their sensibilities; it's a tribute to these empathetic people that there's nothing matter-of-fact about any of the carnage. We see Kimberly try to warn an uncle who is spaced-out on drugs or alcohol that disaster is coming; after the waters subside, she finds his body.

The flood that results from the storm and the levees' disintegration has a slow, inexorable horror that is more terrifying than any disaster-movie calamity. Kimberly puts us right next to her in an area that man and fate seem to have written off. You see the woes of people who can't connect with their families (Kimberly's grandmother has been left behind in a hospital, her brother is in jail on a misdemeanor). You also see strangers perform deeds that bond them as second or third families.

Kimberly can't portray her own heroism, but an older woman calls her a lifesaver, and written accounts say she saved 25 people. A fellow named Larry becomes an honorary sibling to Kimberly and Scott, as well as a hero to the community when he uses a punching bag to float people to a safer spot across the street. Handheld-camera styles have become common in movies and television. But Roberts' footage shows how profound and electric the handheld camera can be when it's used not from choice but from necessity, as a tool to make sense of a lunatic world.

We don't just see the tragedy of soldiers returning from Iraq to domestic devastation. (The closing titles tell us they've been sent back to Iraq again.) We witness the insult of otherwise heroic servicemen treating U.S. citizens as an occupied population, denying them entrance to unoccupied military housing, zooming through their streets without stopping to check for casualties or treating them generally as suspicious characters. (One young serviceman sneers at civilians because, he says, they haven't been trained to survive.)

The film's co-directors, Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, root the movie in Roberts' footage and let it grow out organically. After the flood subsides, frustration expands. The filmmakers bring home the importance of clear, direct, democratic policy-making in concrete, human terms. You share the agony of a recovering addict who's been working in a church ministry; he's barred from getting FEMA funds because he lacks his own New Orleans address.

As Kimberly and Scott travel to an uncle's place in northern Louisiana and a cousin's in Memphis, Tenn., the distance brings the movie's themes into focus. Kimberly's aunt says she thought the events she saw on her TV could have happened only in the Third World; Kimberly says she felt as if she and her 9th Ward friends were not considered part of the United States.

Yet this is a story of champions, not victims. At one point Kimberly breaks into a rap song of her own creation, "I'm Amazing." And she is. Just as inspiring is Scott's decision to learn the home-building trade, hold down his job in the day and return to Kimberly at night. In his own way, he's helping to resurrect New Orleans.

Trouble the Water doesn't merely bring its characters to the edge of the abyss. It watches them fall in - and then, amazingly, climb out.

Trouble the Water

(Zeitgeist) A documentary by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin. Unrated. Time 90 minutes.

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