An Intimate Tale of Survival From Days of Katrina

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008; 10:08 PM

The day before Hurricane Katrina descended on New Orleans in 2005, a charismatic resident of that city's lower Ninth Ward, Kimberly Rivers Roberts, turned on her video camera and began to narrate.

"Everybody is scared," she says, panning her camera across the dilapidated neighborhood of wooden houses and shabby porches and old cars parked in the streets. "Even my dog is scared." The rains come, and the wind picks up. "Here we go," she says.

The resulting footage forms the core of the heartbreaking documentary "Trouble the Water," which chronicles the almost biblical ordeal of Roberts and her husband, Scott, over the next several months. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year, buoyed by the extraordinary spirit and personality of then-24-year-old Roberts, who tells her story to filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal with honesty, wit and a down-home, lovely New Orleans accent. It's a tale of the Crescent City about as far from the French Quarter as you can get, back in neighborhoods where drugs are peddled on street corners and drunks pass out on front steps.

This may seem familiar territory, as Spike Lee's "When the Levees Broke," the four-hour television documentary in 2006, laid bare the stunning failures of the government to prevent, mitigate or respond to the despair of New Orleans residents in the wake of Katrina. Lessin and Deal, directing here for the first time, cut their production teeth on some of Michael Moore's scathing documentaries, like "Bowling for Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11." You might expect a similar tirade here, particularly given the provocative subject matter.

But they eschew the narrated outrage of those films, going more for the intimate story of the Roberts family. It's a proven technique: When a disaster is this large, the most powerful storytelling option often is to focus in, in, in, on a single person or family. They just let Roberts talk; the film is without voice-over narration. It's a smart idea. Roberts, during the middle of the deluge, blurts into her camcorder: "Katrina, she's a bad chick." That's tough to beat.

They also make terrific use of the footage that Roberts, an aspiring rapper and neighborhood gadfly, shot during the hurricane. She bought the camcorder for $20 on the street a few days before the storm. It was probably the best $20 she'll ever spend.

The couple lived just three blocks from one of the main levee breaks, and the surging waters built into a river that nearly topped the stop sign at the street corner. The Robertses and friends retreated to their attic but couldn't push out onto the roof. A neighbor rescued people by using a punching bag for a life raft. People died.

Roberts's family and neighbors -- flawed, impoverished, uneducated, often unemployed, some dealing drugs -- survived by showing the kind of grit and concern for one another that every level of their government, from the mayor's office to the White House, failed to demonstrate. The film also underscores the stark racial divide exposed by Katrina, with masses of (mostly) black residents in New Orleans's poorest quarter forced into exodus, while the (mostly) white government was unable or unwilling to respond.

"Trouble" is noticeably weaker in its second half than its mesmerizing first, as the story moves away from the intensity of the storm to follow the Robertses in their efforts to resettle. But it still rolls home on the tide of its profound emotional resonance, the devastating scale of the Katrina disaster and the original American voice of Kimberly Rivers Roberts.

Trouble the Water (93 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated. There are adult themes and some profanity.

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