Dirs: Tia Lessin & Carl Deal. US. 2007. 90mins
Although both productions document the same Hurricane Katrina that unleashed its fury on the US Gulf Coast in 2005, Trouble The Water could hardly be more different stylistically from Spike Lee's 2006 mini-series When The Levees Broke. If Lee's reverentially crafted four-act requiem could be considered operatic in its tragic scope and poetic grandeur, then Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's Trouble The Water offers a grungy, basement-band take on the groundswell of disasters that blight New Orleans to this day. The end-result is no less affecting for its evident lack of polish.
In awarding Trouble The Water this year's top prize for American documentary features, the Sundance jury clearly chose emotional punch over storytelling craft. Critical purists will complain of the structural mess, but audience hearts cannot fail to be seared by this water-level account of one of the deadliest tropical storms in US history and the horrendous bedlam that followed.
That this raw spun film manages to find some transcendent uplift amidst all the psychic and physical debris is what sets it apart from the now familiar images of New Orleans falling apart under the distanced gaze of the world's news cameras. Whether this and the Sundance stamp of approval will be enough to translate into a theatrical run for Trouble The Water remains an open question.
The marketplace beyond festivals has become ever more inhospitable towards documentaries that chase the personal stories behind even the biggest, most urgent headlines.
But helping Trouble The Water's commercial cause will be its potent soundtrack. The film's central protagonist, an aspiring rap artist by the name of Kim Roberts (a.k.a. Black Kold Madina), displays a gift for hip-hop songs that find hope in the face of poverty and toxic neglect. Roberts' spontaneous, throat-grabbing performance on camera of her song 'Amazing', together with an original score by Neil Davidge and Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack, offers marketable elements that may allow the film to catch fire with the media and across youthful social networks. But it will be an undeniable hustle, particularly overseas where local-interest docu-tragedies take precedent.
The filmmakers behind Trouble The Water, Lessin and Deal, both cut their documentary teeth collaborating as producers with Michael Moore. But don't expect another subjective big theme essay from this duo. Whatever film they had in mind when they landed in Louisiana with their camera two weeks after Katrina made landfall, well, all that changed when they stumbled across Kim and her husband Scott Roberts at a Red Cross shelter.
Little about the Roberts' initial appearance quite prepares for the journey that follows. Born survivors, the Roberts come across as opportunistic grifters who are out peddling some home movie footage they shot during Katrina's onslaught. But from the moment we witness their horror story through their own unsteady lens - Kim barely knew how to operate her new camcorder when the storm hit - we are gripped.
Gripped not only by what it really means to be forced up to your attic as the waters rise, but gripped also by the extraordinary reserves of strength this charismatic couple show in the face of peril and a piteous past that grew out of the crack epidemic of the 80s.
That incredible resolve is continually tested. A police dispatcher tells them that no rescuers can come to their aid until the weather clears. Wading through the flood in search of dry sanctuary, the Roberts find themselves turned away at gun-point from a largely empty military complex.
Lucky enough to escape by truck to a relative's home in Memphis, they return as refugees to what's left of their beloved Ninth Award neighbourhood only to find bodies in the wreckage and a disinterested world whose concern moved on once the tourist Quarter of New Orleans was back in business. How this couple keeps extending a helping hand and a cheering voice to all those left stranded around them simply beggars belief.
To their enormous credit, the filmmakers don't tamper too much with the crudeness of Roberts' video images or ragged voiceover. At its unrefined best, this works as an indelible first-person account of disaster and humanism in action. The resultant authenticity, for all its flaws, contrasts mightily with a film like Cloverfield that also tries to use the hand-held approach to propel audience into the visceral centre of destruction. This, regrettably, is the real deal.
Louverture Films with support from Open Society Institute
and the Sundance Documentary Programme
Director of photography
P.J. Raval, Kimberly Roberts
Editor & co-producer
T. Woody Richman
Robert Del Naja
Black Kold Madina