Hurricane Katrina may have driven off a large segment of New Orleans’ African-American population. But in one sense the deadly storm was a uniter, not a divider: The devil wind brought together much of the country in contempt of the Bush administration’s loose definition of humanitarian aid. Fresh as a slap, the outrage of Katrina’s mishandling comes flooding back in Trouble the Water, a documentary account so starkly surreal that at times it seems wrought from another century’s folklore.
Trouble the Water bears roughly the same relation to Spike Lee’s kaleidoscopic When the Levees Broke that a talking-blues dispatch has to a David McCullough history. The topic may be the same, but the scope is personal rather than monumental. Yet by following a husband and wife from New Orleans’ stricken Ninth Ward through the flood and its aftermath—most memorably in their own camcorder footage—the movie becomes an eyewitness epic of history in miniature.
The opening montage is faces, the displaced of New Orleans; the soundtrack ping-pongs news bites (President Bush: “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees . . . “) and rebuttals (faceless newsman: “For years, officials have warned the levees could break . . . “). Inside a shelter are Scott and Kimberly Roberts. Tall, genial, and soft-spoken, Scott shyly flashes a grill of gold teeth. Kimberly is his opposite in brashness, a would-be rapper and amateur videographer. She’s the one who kept a camcorder running as the storm bore down on the Gulf Coast. “I’m not leavin’ ’cause I can’t afford to,” she says flatly.
The first and most gripping half of Trouble the Water, directed by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, is essentially a first-person disaster movie—history captured in the visual grammar of Cloverfield. Driven just to get it down (“I’ll be able to tell the story”), Kimberly aims her palm-sized camera at her backyard, at the neighbor passed out on his porch, at the kids laughing off the storm warnings in the street. A dog whimpers, an Army truck creeps by, the sky fades to gray, a drizzle begins. Those cunning directors who’ve turned shaky-cam mock-vérité into a horror-movie cliché waste a lot of effort planting such “stray” details; they don’t have the thing that gives Kimberly’s footage its eerie force—genuine uncertainty about what’s going to happen.
Then we watch as the water rises. And rises. In one of the movie’s periodic cutaways to the outside world, President Bush addresses New Orleans from the trenches at the El Mirage RV Resort & Country Club in Arizona, reassuring the soon-to-be-submerged that “America will pray.” (It’s one of the few moments that tips off the filmmakers’ production background with Michael Moore.) The couple is forced upstairs, atop their piled belongings. When the electricity goes out, with it goes every last vestige of the 21st century.
What Greil Marcus called “the old weird America” rolls in with the floodwaters. News of the outside world arrives from a friend, Brian Nobles, who floats in on a punching bag; a stranger paddles down the street in a washtub. High water everywhere, indeed—life is suddenly a Charley Patton song, or Big Bill Broonzy recounting the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 in “Southern Flood Blues”: “Hey my house started shakin’, went on floatin’ on down the stream/It was dark as midnight, people began to holler and scream.”
It gets weirder once the Roberts make their way outside the city to shelter, only to return weeks later to a deserted Ninth Ward that’s purest Beckett: a ghostscape patrolled by lost dogs and warily accommodating National Guardsmen, where the surest sign of neighbors is the stink of death. In “Louisiana 1927,” Randy Newman captured the warp of cataclysm in a single mysterious line—”What has happened down here is the winds have changed”—and this new New Orleans is a zombie double with bared teeth. Those who seek shelter at a largely vacant naval base are reportedly turned away at gunpoint. The soldiers get presidential commendation; the residents get wet.
The second half finds the Roberts after they’ve rode 220 miles in a moving truck with 30 other people, seeking refuge with Kimberly’s Uncle Jerome in Alexandria, Louisiana. This section doesn’t have the staggering otherworldliness of the Katrina footage, just a slowly deepening ache as the Roberts learn the extent of the devastation and the runaround on FEMA disaster aid. Most heartbreaking of all, Jerome’s mother was among the patients who didn’t get evacuated from New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center and were left to die as the water rose. Two weeks later, Jerome still doesn’t have her body.
The resilience of the movie’s subjects—survivors of street crime and drugs and HIV—irradiates Trouble the Water like sunshine. Kimberly’s explosive rap provides the kind of balm that the blues gave to the untold thousands of Southern blacks displaced in the 1920s: This, too, is the story of a diaspora. But that only makes its closing post-Katrina update sting harder: billions in federal aid never disbursed; thousands of livable residences demolished; much of the city’s African-American population scattered, never to return. Perhaps worst of all, the levees remain vulnerable, as do the city’s poor. “Pray that you all don’t have to go back to Iraq—it’s not our war,” Brian cautions some soldiers on the ground in the Ninth Ward. “This is the war, right here.”