Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Trouble the Water

"Wasn't Katrina like a longtime ago? Aren't there other natural disasters we should be worried about? It's not like we didn't help them already," overheard on the metro minutes outside of D.C.

As callous and uncaring as the sentiment may be, it's a statement that holds true for the America of today; a land mired in a clash of cultures, both ethnic and aesthetic, nostalgic and progressive. We long for the glorified patriotism of yore, and second guess the intentions of any and all who claim to be about virtue, change, or truth. Conservative and liberal extremities have become the norm, and for the vast populace yearning to block out the polarizing soundboard punditry it's hard not to fault our tunnel vision-like emphasis on the here and now.

Yet sitting in an air conditioned arthouse theater crowded with Manhattan yuppies and hipsters, it was refreshing to be reminded of the source of our once proud, yet now fleeting virtue: trust.

The documentary Trouble the Water delves right into the heart of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, and amid the swamp-ish quagmire of bureaucratic dumbfuckery that permeated much of its coverage in subsequent years, manages to rise above it all, and tell a story that isn't polarizing or political, but human.

Told from the unique perspective of hand held camcorders, Trouble the Water follows the journey of Kimberly and Scott Roberts, a poverty stricken couple residing in the infamous 9th Ward in New Orleans, and with disturbingly surreal footage, shows instantaneous intensity of Katrina's effect on the neighborhood and their neighbors unable to afford to leave what little they have.


Alternating between Roberts' camcorder and the film crew following them weeks and months after the storm, Trouble the Water shows the reality of disparity, not with an eye of pity or social self aggrandizement, but of community. The world of the Roberts' is one many understand but few outside (especially those viewing the documentary) will truly ever know. On an overly simplistic level, it's a world of survival bandied about in materialistic hip hop braggadocio, to detached suburbanites and white America it might as well be "that place with the flies and Sally Struthers."

But at its core, Trouble the Water succeeds because it shows the capacity for strength and compassion among even the most disparaging circumstances. Kimberly Rivers Roberts, the aspiring rapper, wife, sister to a imprisoned younger brother, and daughter of a heroin addict who died of AIDS when she was thirteen, is the emotional center of the film, a fiery personality whose charisma is only outweighed by her drive to overcome her circumstances. Her husband, Scott, is a former drug dealer who undermines the standard stereotype affixed to him, by showing a heroism and magnetic quality that makes it difficult not to root for the couple as they attempt to put their already complicated lives into some semblance of order.


Directed and produced by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, they provide a soft touch in allowing us to immerse ourselves in the Roberts' world, a place so foreign yet so familiar and close all at the same time. Having contributed to previous Michael Moore projects Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, there are the customary jabs at Bush and the bumbling indifference of the government, yet for the most part, Lessin allows the Roberts to be our guides, and in terrifying place of uncertainty and destruction, there's an undeniable feeling of faith in hope in their presence.

While Bill Maher's Religulous aims to deconstruct the ludicrous specificity of religious faith and the deified, in Trouble the Water we see religion not as a construct of inept devotion, but as a symbolic manner of holding on to one's humanity by whatever means necessary. Yes, maybe too much of the film serves as a publicity platform for Kimberly Roberts' (aka Black Kold Madina) raps, and yes, maybe the film takes an unfair swipe at National Guard.

Yet as a whole, it succeeds in presenting a uniquely human story, about real honest people truly trying to better themselves, even as the circular nature of poverty and politics continues to stand in their way.

There may not be a God or gods in Maher's microscope, but a faith and optimism in humanity and the dignity of human life irregardless of social order is a faith America can and should cling to. God (or whoever) damn sure knows we need it.

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