Sundance's Trouble the Water Reveals New Orleans Heroine

by Anne Thompson
January 25, 2008 8:10 AM
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TroublethewatesffTen days after Hurricane Katrina, documentary filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal were all set to shoot a film about National Guard troops being redeployed more than 7000 miles from Iraq to New Orleans to cope with the storm’s aftermath. Then the duo got shut down—thanks to their credits on Fahrenheit 9/11.

But thanks to years of training with Michael Moore, Lessin and Deal weren’t going to take no for an answer. “We didn’t set out to make any particular doc,” says Deal. “We wanted to find a different story of Katrina that wasn’t the one filtering through news media and newsrooms.”

They found a doozy. (UPDATE: Trouble the Water won the doc jury prize at Sundance.)

When the duo wandered across the street to a Red Cross shelter with their cameras to interview some of the refugees from the storm, Kimberly Rivers Roberts walked into the frame and told them that they really needed to see the video she had shot during Katrina. “Kimberly and Scott wanted to get the word out there, and didn’t know how to do it,” says Deal. “They were thinking bigger than local TV crews.”

Skeptical, Deal and Lessin checked out Roberts’ footage on the little Sony Hi-8 camcorder that she had bought on the street for $20 the week before the storm, planning to use it for birthday parties and reunions. Stuck in town as the storm approached, Roberts chronicled her Lower 9th Ward neighborhood in the hours before the hurricane hit. Other poor folks with no way to leave town were also left behind. The city of New Orleans had ordered an evacuation, but sent no buses to ferry the neediest residents out of the area.

Roberts stocked up on supplies, sold a bit of weed, and continued shooting and narrating throughout the ordeal of the storm: the rising floodwaters, the 12 neighbors who joined them in their attic crawlspace, and the daring rescue from a neighbor across the street, who used a punching bag as a flotation device to ferry people over to a bigger house with a second story, one by one. These people knew they were in danger of losing their lives.

Days after the storm was over and the flood had receded, the Scotts were feeding their neighbors from their dwindling stockpile and there was still no sign of rescue. So Kimberly and husband Scott commandeered a truck, piled their neighbors into it and drove out of town. They saved 25 people. As they were on their way out of New Orleans, the National Guard was coming in.

The filmmakers already had cleared the necessary red tape to enter the central city, and were among the first to return on September 16, with the two Roberts in tow. “It was like Armageddon, the end of the world,” says Deal. “The stench was practically unbearable. There wasn’t a single civilian, just a few soldiers, vehicles, wild dogs and lots of helicopters, which is revealing.”

As Deal and Lessin spent the day filming the 9th Ward, they found it muddy and deserted. But the Roberts’ joyful animals were home. And Kimberly rescued her prize possession: a photo of her mother, who died of AIDs when she was thirteen.

Trouble the Water intercuts Roberts’ amazing footage with the story of how this couple--who had been drug dealers scrapping for survival in a corner of the U.S. that had long been neglected by mainstream America-- during Hurricane Katrina became heroes who saved their neighbors and in the course of beginning a new life after the storm, turned themselves around.

The filmmakers raised money independently from George Soros, Creative Capital, Danny Glover and others to shoot and finish Trouble the Water, which met an enthusiastic response at Sundance, where Lessin and Deal hope to land a theatrical distributor. They found it tough to fuse Roberts’ homevideo with their more professional 16 mm and hi-def video footage, without using a narrator. “They’re insiders looking out,” says Lessin, “and we’re outsiders looking in. We’re white, and they’re African-American from New Orleans’ poorest ward. We’re professional documentary filmmakers, they’re amateur camera shooters. And yet they shot the most riveting material we’ve ever seen.”

The same survival instinct that led the Roberts to deal drugs helped them to endure the storm and escape New Orleans. “They knew no one was going to come and save them,” says Lessin. “So they saved themselves and 25 others too. Kim has long had a gift for turning shit into something good. Katrina was a tragedy that they wished hadn’t happened but they made the best of it they could.”

Roberts didn’t realize she was a heroine to her neighbors and the old people she looked after until she saw herself through their eyes in the film. One day the filmmakers came upon the house where she was staying and found the windows shaking. Roberts had found a rap tape that she had made. “The rapping was a revelation,” says Deal, who wound up including several of her songs in the movie.

Lessin and Deal shot some of the film’s most moving footage as they drove by the Astrodome as thousands of people, many of them ill and elderly, waited, desolated and marooned. “This is just one story out of thousands of stories,” Deal says. “The Roberts are very conscious that they represent other people.”

Even though Kimberly was nine months pregnant, she and Scott flew to Sundance for the Sunday morning Library Center screening of Trouble the Water. After the film played to rousing emotional response, during the Q & A Roberts told the crowd, "I was determined to get here even if I had a baby in Utah."

Sure enough, later that night, Kimberly was rushed down the mountain to a Salt Lake City hospital to give birth to her first child, baby girl Skyy Kaylen Rivers Roberts, born early the next morning at 6:14 AM, weighing seven pounds, one ounce. She and her husband brought the newborn back up to the fest several days later.

“The media saw everyone in New Orleans as victims or looters," says Lessin. "These guys are nobody’s victims. They’re struggling to transform their lives. Nothing’s easy. Drugs are behind them. They’re back home.”

[Originally appeared on Variety.com]

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More: festivals, Genres, Sundance, Documentaries

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