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Trouble the Water (Zeitgeist Films, NR)

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trouble2.jpgWe see how the water rises with alarming rapidity after the levee fails; and most hauntingly, we get lots of footage of Roberts and other residents (nearly all African-American) wandering ruined streets for weeks, observing devastated homes, commenting on whether or not there are dead bodies inside (in some cases, yes), and waiting…waiting…waiting for the Federal aid that, for most, never comes. It’s the most damning portrait of government failure and outright neglect that has yet been shown, told and presented by the people who lived through it.

 

 

 

 

 

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Much has been written and broadcast about the disaster and disgrace known as Hurricane Katrina. It’s a dark chapter in American history now, as well as practically being part of pop culture. “You’re doing a hell of a job, Brownie.” “Why won’t anyone help us?” “George Bush don’t care about black people.” You’ve heard it all, right? But whatever you think you know about the post-Katrina nightmare, the new documentary Trouble the Water will give you a much greater understanding of the tragedy than you might’ve thought possible. That’s due to the attentive, focused direction by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, and the running commentary (sometimes onscreen, sometimes off) by New Orleans resident and aspiring rapper Kimberly Rivers Roberts. Roberts made the amazingly fortuitous decision to turn her camcorder on and record events before, during and after the hurricane. She describes what’s happening during the worst of the storm and flood, interviews Ninth Ward residents affected by it, and freely offers her own musings and opinions throughout. It’s bracing, powerful stuff, and the filmmakers don’t hold back on presenting the incontrovertible evidence that our government was not merely impotent in helping the beleaguered inhabitants of the flooded city, but actually complicit in denying them needed services.

“If you don’t have money and you don’t have status, you don’t have a government,” says one of the many black residents of the Ninth Ward who’s shown desperately seeking the aid that would come to far too few. Roberts serves as a remarkably honest, down-to-earth tour guide for the unfolding apocalypse. We see her in the preface to the storm, with occasional newscasts warning of its potential; we get footage of her and husband Scott huddled in the attic of their small house as the fury of the storm vents, with offhand comments throughout; we see how the water rises with alarming rapidity after the levee fails; and most hauntingly, we get lots of footage of Roberts and other residents (nearly all African-American) wandering ruined streets for weeks, observing devastated homes, commenting on whether or not there are dead bodies inside (in some cases, yes), and waiting…waiting…waiting for the Federal aid that, for most, never comes. It’s the most damning portrait of government failure and outright neglect that has yet been shown, told and presented by the people who lived through it. In one disturbing segment, a resident discusses how a group of desperate citizens approached a naval base looking for any kind of help, only to be met with weapons cocked and loaded and aimed at them by indifferent military jerks. Naturally, this scenario is denied and painted in far different colors by a government official speaking for the other side. But there’s no alternate “version” of the reality that the poor of New Orleans had to endure: loss of basic necessities (food, water, etc.), loss of or severe damage to their homes, disease and, for far too many, loss of life. And a running tagline showing how many days pass without aid or assistance is proof enough that the Feds never did right by the most affected and neediest of the area’s inhabitants.

“That’s one reason I’m against this President Bush character, whoever he is…they still haven’t come here,” says Roberts with characteristic bluntness. The contrast between the truthful reports by Roberts and fellow citizens, and the bland pronouncements shown periodically by Bush, “Brownie” and others in various sound bites is striking. Grim reality versus clueless sugarcoating -- that was the disparity in the Katrina coverage. Roberts is clearly a talented and passionate woman; we get to see her sing along with one of her rap records candidly, and it’s a vivid scene, giving more insight into where this music comes from than a hundred late-night videos. And, remarkably, she keeps a sense of humor and buoyant zest for life throughout the ordeal she shares with us.

“I’m still here, still strong…looking for a better tomorrow,” she says to the camera at one point. Here’s hoping that day eventually comes for all of those who suffered the ravages of both the storm and the paralyzed/indifferent government, a story told in unflinching, unforgettable terms in this remarkable piece of film. | Kevin Renick

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