The grim and maddening story of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward is familiar. In some minds, the episode has even passed into history.
But there are many reasons to see the new documentary Trouble the Water. Topping the list is Kim Rivers Roberts, the dauntless young woman whose story, family and home-video footage are the film's core.
When Katrina hit, in August 2005, Roberts, her husband, Scott, and many neighbors lacked the wheels to obey the evacuation order. When the Industrial Canal levee broke, three blocks from her house, they climbed to their attic, later relocating to higher ground nearby. And when they fled the flooded city, they met Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, visiting filmmakers whose own attempts at a Katrina doc had been stymied.
Trouble the Water builds from Kim Roberts' rawly candid and charismatically narrated first-person footage: howling winds; submerged streets; the naked joists of that attic refuge; Scott's brother's heroic shuttling of neighbors to safety, his rescue craft a boxer's buoyant yellow heavy bag. Then Lessin and Deal document Kim and Scott's relocation to Memphis and bittersweet return home.
Lessin and Deal, who also co-produced Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine, make sure we remember the way that poor Orleanians were left to die. (Roberts discovers one uncle's body herself.) We hear from an uncle whose mother was stranded in a hospital, and surely died there, and her younger brother, who rode out the storm in jail, nourishing himself on paper and toothpaste. We see federal aid slow to arrive; the oblivious complacency of President Bush and FEMA chief Michael Brown; and the ongoing neglect of places like the Ninth, while French Quarter tourism rebounds.
The filmmakers also investigate how Kim, Scott and their neighbors, all homeless, were chased at gunpoint from a mostly empty naval base. "If you don't have money, you don't have status, you don't have a government," says one of Kim's cousins.
Yet none of it would be half as vivid without Roberts, 24, a former teen-age drug-dealer who survived with her faith in God and dreams of a rap career intact. Roberts' footage and impromptu voiceover are as unfiltered as they are funny and personable. Stuck in her attic, videotaping wavelets in her street, she quips, "You could go surfing and shit, if you wanted to." Her most memorable moment, though, is when she performs along with "Amazing," a song on her lone professionally produced recording -- the sole remaining copy of which was miraculously saved by a friend.
The track, a survival story, is startlingly good, and it's somehow Trouble the Water in miniature: a clear-eyed assessment of life's woes framed by indefatigable optimism, an expression of individual pride in the embrace of a family, a community, no disaster can erase.
Starts Fri., Oct. 17. Harris