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Trouble the Water (2008)

March 1, 2011

*This review contains spoilers*

I missed the first 20 minutes of this documentary. I was sat in the wrong screening room, being patient, excusing the late start because this was a black show and ‘black shows never start on time’.

I need to raise my expectations of my brothers and sisters. By the end of this movie I’ve never been prouder of two people I have never met: husband and wife, Kimberly and Scott.

As I wander into the darkened room, I realise I haven’t missed the start of the hurricane, even though I already know how the story ends. I can see shaky footage made by somebody riding around their New Orleans neighborhood on a bike, filming everything and anyone that comes their way.

The filmmaker is Kimberly Rivers and she is documenting New Orleans before Katrina makes landfall. Many people have left. Without public transportation, most people have stayed. Her neighborhood looks rough but the people don’t. They are bracing themselves but are uncomplaining. “We ain’t afraid of no storm, a storm ain’t nothing but water, and who’s afraid of water?” one cute girl asks with infectious optimism. It’s a question that is instantly recalled when we see shots of Kimberly and her family in the attic of their house, trying to get to higher ground, because the water won’t stop rising.

The success of this documentary is two fold. The state abandoned New Orleans, as it had neglected people like Kimberly and Scott before. They realise a government that won’t help them when a hurricane devastates their home, can’t be expected to help them at all. Instead, a renewed sense of responsibility and faith sees them through and it is life changing.

It exposes the callousness of America. Soldiers at an empty army base, with 100s of empty rooms for accommodation, turn the family away, threatening them with guns (even though they floated to the base in a boat). One officer looks proud, claiming he was protecting  ‘United States’ property’. He looks ridiculous, shouldn’t he be protecting United States’ people?

When in the attic, Kimberly and her family call 999. The operator is ghastly. There is no coastguard, she informs them. There are no police or US Guard too. No one is coming until the waters recede. “So we’re just going to die here?” the operator is asked. “Yes” is the reply.

There are other episodes; they find accommodation out of state. The civil servant who arrives to turn the water supply on for them, returns moments later to turn it off again.

Towards the end of the film a lady who works for Louisiana tourism dances along to a DVD that was made just before the hurricane hit. She is delighted. “Look!” she exclaims, “Now most of the places look just like they used to”.  It is a sorry sight – as if she is dancing on the graves of the people left to rot in their homes because they lived in places that tourists don’t go.

The film does lag towards the end (Kimberly only managed to shoot 15 minutes of hurricane footage before her camera runs out of juice). The last quarter is filmed by professional filmmakers and lacks the refreshing ‘artlessness’ of the earlier scenes.

Still, the film tells a story told many times before in an extraordinary way; Kimberly and Scott are self confessed hustlers but on camera they are funny, intelligent, kind and generous. The personal stories are moving but the most powerful story is one of opportunity.

A government that cares little for its people and leaves them to their own devices is completely flawed. This is why Kimberly and Scott found themselves on street corners selling drugs. One that abandons its people in natural disaster is then catastrophic. Luckily for our protagonists, the suffering caused leads them to reconciliation, adaptability and in the end, hope. This film will renew your faith in our ability to survive.

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