Trouble the Water sounds like the newest release from 20th Century Fox. The movie tells the story of two "born hustlers," a small-time drug dealer and a struggling rapper whose lives are forever changed when their home in New Orleans' Ninth Ward is destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Trapped in their attic and abandoned by the rescue effort, the two have to get themselves and almost 30 of their friends and neighbors out of the floodwaters and into safety. Though they lose a tremendous amount in the storm, our heroes gain courage, strength, and a new perspective of the world in their quest for survival. Sounds like a hit, doesn't it? Get some young actors or hip-hop stars looking to be taken seriously, teach them how to say "Y'heard me?" like a true N'awlins native, and wait for the Golden Globes to start rolling in. Hollywood would be all over this movie, if someone had bothered to write it.
But nobody wrote Trouble the Water, because it's a true story, and nobody hired Mekhi Pfeiffer to play Scott Roberts because Mr. Roberts plays himself. Trouble the Water is a documentary about Scott Roberts and his wife Kim who really did find themselves leading almost 30 people out of the Ninth Ward. The film, directed and produced by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, follows the young couple from a day before the hurricane to a year and a half later, chronicling their struggles first to survive, then to rebuild their lives.
Like all citizens of the Ninth Ward, Kim and Scott lose nearly everything in the hurricane and leave New Orleans with their lives barely intact. During their flight from the city, they encounter nearly every drama that has become inextricably linked to Katrina: frustration with a non-existent rescue effort, battles with FEMA over money that never came, nights in abandoned schools and convention centers packed to the gills with displaced residents. To finally reach safety, they must first steal a boat and paddle to dry land, then stuff a truck with women and children before driving away from the disaster zone they once called home. Their story is dramatic and difficult, but it is not one we haven't heard before.
What makes Trouble the Water fresh is its perspective: much of the movie is seen directly through the eyes of Kim Roberts, who filmed Hurricane Katrina on a camcorder she bought for $20. This first-person perspective gives viewers a glimpse of the hurricane as it really happened. No one can forget the images of people waving for help on the rooftops of flooded homes, but it's a completely different experience to see the view from the rooftops themselves. Though Mrs. Roberts cannot claim to be the world's best camerawoman, her shots and running commentary provide some of the movie's most stirring, remarkable moments. The documentarians splice Kim's shots together with archival footage and footage they shots themselves, and ultimately craft a piece that touches on many of the issues of race, class, and bureaucratic bungling that have come to be synonymous with Katrina.
But at its core, Trouble the Water is a story of redemption fit for Hollywood. As I watched Kim and Scott's lives unfold and change, I couldn't help but think that, if this movie were a fictional film, I would probably consider it trite and strained. However, there's nothing as true as reality; thus, when we see how Hurricane Katrina, for all its destructive power, might have created a new life for Kim and Scott Roberts, we can't help but believe it. And in that belief lies a message not only about Katrina, but about storytelling and maybe even humanity: that redemption isn't something that poets and filmmakers craft, that real people save each other and themselves every day.
Trouble the Water opens Friday, September 5, 2008 at Kabuki Theater, 1881 Post Street. There will be a Q&A with the directors/producers, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, following the 7:25 show on Friday, September 5th as well as an appearance by executive producer Danny Glover before the 5:00 show that same day. For tickets and information, visit sundancecinemas.com or call 415.346.3243.