Saturday, September 27, 2008

Trouble the Water (2008, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal)

The intimate mirror image of Spike Lee’s expansive Katrina saga, Trouble the Water is best at putting what journalists would call “a human face” on the disaster. Of course, it was Lessin and Deal’s good luck that they hooked up with Kimberly Rivers Roberts and Scott Roberts early on. To begin with, there’s the matter of the video footage Kimberly shot herself. The famously grumpy Jeff Wells has complained on numerous occasions that her footage was “amateurish at best” and that she “should never be permitted to pick up a camera again.” Yet I think it’s this clumsy quality that makes her footage so wrenching. With a more assured hand on the camera, the footage would have felt professional, with shots properly framed for maximum impact. By contrast, the amateurishness not only “keeps it real,” but also gives her video footage a serendipitous feel- rather than a seasoned camera operator who plunged into the storm, Kimberly was in the right (wrong) place at the right time, and recorded the disaster because she thought someone should be there to tell the story. But the filmmakers’ good fortune also extends to the subjects themselves, a pair of “ordinary” 9th Ward citizens who prove to be compelling on-camera subjects. Kimberly and Scott may lack formal education and have less-than-savory pasts, but they’re intelligent and intensely verbal, and give voice to their discontents in colorful and expressive ways. They’re not “articulate” in that patronizing way that’s usually attributed to African-Americans, but they’re very good at making their points in conversation, with a no-nonsense manner of speaking that cuts right through the niceties. Moreover, choosing a pair of poor ex-criminals allows the filmmakers to show the pair rising out of the rubble of Katrina to better themselves. The film never makes it explicit that the tragedy has jolted them out of their lives, but it’s pretty clear that what happens to them both during and in the weeks after the storm works to sharpen their foci in life. Kimberly uses her fledgling music career to help bring to light the injustices she believes her people were subjected to by the government in the wake of Katrina. Less obvious but perhaps even more poignant is Scott’s path- an ex-criminal (we see old video of him brandishing a machine gun at one point), Scott eventually finds a job in construction, helping to fix up houses that were damaged by the flood, and he positively beams at the camera at having found a purpose and center for his life (oh, and fuck this guy in my opinion). On balance, I think I prefer Lee’s film- that’s a whole lotta movie, after all, and he handles it beautifully- but in its way, Trouble the Water is no less indispensible in its approach to one of the defining American events so far this century, one that definitively demonstrated (to quote Haven Hamilton) “how far we’ve come along ‘til now/ how far we’ve got to go.” Rating: 8 out of 10.

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