A Film Emerges From Katrina's Troubled Waters

By Ellen Maguire
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 25, 2008; Page C01

A week before Hurricane Katrina busted the levees and flooded New Orleans, Kimberly Rivers Roberts happened to pick up a video camera on the street for $20. Then, unable to flee the Ninth Ward as the storm struck, Roberts, then 24, documented the annihilation of her abandoned neighborhood.

"I bought the camera for family parties, you know, although I always wanted to catch something live, like the police beating someone up," she says, three years after the disaster. "Well, I got it, I got something live."

Eventually, she and her husband, Scott Roberts, helped ferry a group of neighbors with a floating punching bag to the high roof of a nearby house and survived -- as did her video. Fifteen minutes of that unique, on-the-ground footage, accompanied by her incisive real-time narration, punctuates "Trouble the Water," a new documentary about Katrina and its aftermath by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal. (The film opens tomorrow at Landmark's E Street Cinema.)

For their part, Lessin and Deal, life partners and first-time feature film directors, track the Robertses for days, months and years after the catastrophe, from Louisiana to Tennessee and back again, their cameras watching discreetly as the Robertses fight not just to survive but to change the trajectory of their lives.

The resulting film is an odyssey of reinvention. By turns uplifting and sobering, the documentary provides a window into the lives of poor black Louisianans in general and an extraordinarily resourceful young couple in particular.

Wielding her camera on foot and by bicycle, Kim Roberts catches her longtime neighbors -- one of whom she would later find dead -- as they react to news reports of the approaching storm. She films the rapidly rising floodwaters, her whimpering pit bulls and the terrified people she gathered in her attic. Sometimes she hopes aloud for God's intervention; sometimes the aspiring musician signs off to the camera with her rap name: Black Kold Madina.

In one particularly disturbing sequence, Lessin and Deal add a soundtrack of 911 calls to Roberts's video. An operator is heard informing a trapped woman that the police will not be venturing into the storm. "I'm going to drown," the hurricane victim says, in a frail voice. "I can't get out."

The personal being political, the documentary also offers an indictment of the Bush administration, the New Orleans city government, the legacy of Jim Crow and decades of institutionalized racism.

Lessin, a former labor organizer who was born and raised in the District, and Deal, a former freelance investigative reporter, both 43, throw the Robertses' deep bond and faith-based optimism into sharp relief by including archival news reports of inadequate responses from Michael D. Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the president, who offers prayers.

"Growing up, I had a lot of faith in the federal government to make things right," says Lessin, whose father worked for the Environmental Protection Agency and whose mother worked for the Justice Department. In an interview at the filmmakers' office near their home in Brooklyn, N.Y., Lessin refers to Katrina as a man-made disaster and derides the "collusion" of various elected officials who ignored New Orleans's weak levees, then failed to rebuild the region.

By contrast, Kim Roberts, who describes herself as a "hustler" who worked minimum-wage jobs and sold drugs to pay the rent, and whose mother, a drug addict, died of HIV when Roberts was 13, refrains from hoping for society's intervention.

"Bush has got to answer to God, that's all I can say," she says.

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