Tia Lessen and Carl Deal went to Louisiana just days after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans with the idea of making a documentary about the Louisiana National Guard troops who returning home from Iraq to find their homes changed forever. Instead, while doing an interview for that film, two people walked up and introduced themselves. On camera. Kimberly and Scott Rivers would not be denied and Lessen and Deal were smart enough to recognize that they shouldn’t even try. The doc about the troops was set aside and instead the filmmakers found themselves telling the story of a remarkable couple who survived the storm with footage that is jaw-dropping and a story that is even moreso. That meeting starts the film and once Kimberly is on screen, she takes charge of it the same way she took charge of riding out the storm she couldn’t afford to flee, and of the evacuation that eventually took her to Memphis.
Kimberly and Scott lived in the 9th Ward of New Orleans, the one that went underwater when the levees broke. The day before the storm hit, Kimberly began filming her neighborhood with a digital camera she had just bought. Her running commentary introduces that close-knit community. The film cuts back and forth between the footage Kimberly took over the next few days, and her journey afterwards, first to an uncle in Alexandria, and then a cousin in Memphis. Far from distracting or disjointed, it emphasizes the sheer moxie of this woman as she talks calmly to her cousin about what happened as the latter fights back tears.
What happened is captured in snippets, the result of Kimberly parceling out filming as the battery in her camera ran down. The sky darkens, the wind picks up, thunder rolls, and the rain begins. Then the water has submerged the raised porch of her house. Then she and her family and neighbors are sheltering in her attic, the water rising to cover the stop signs in the street, the wind ferocious. That image is fresh in the audience’s mind as Kimberly is shown later in Alexandria, talking about the lack of water or power in the house her uncle has loaned her indefinitely. It’s not a problem. What is a problem is the lack of response by FEMA in sending the promised check, though a trip to the local makeshift office with cameras in tow solves that. The image of a neighbor floating by Kimberly’s house after the storm, taking people to higher ground is fresh in the minds of the audience for that encounter. The question isn’t just how the government could so callously fail its people is such a fundamental way, it’s also how Kimberly maintains an even keel through it all, storm, government, and the responsibility for the people she took north with her. It’s not just resilience. It’s not just determination. Over an hour into the film, she recounts what her childhood was like, spontaneously singing along with a demo of a song she wrote called “You Don’t Have to Tell Me That I’m Amazing.” After this brash, defiant breakdown of a broken life plagued by poverty, drugs, and worse, her heart did not turn hard and die, instead it is full of compassion and hope. The only tear she sheds, the only time she loses composure is when she returns to her flooded home and discovers that her mother’s picture, the only one she has of her, has survived. This woman is a miracle.
Lessin and Deal give judicious context to her story. The clips of people waiting on overpasses in the broiling sun, the crowds outside the Superdome have been seen before. They are included, but briefly. Instead, there is the 911 call of a woman trapped in an attic with the water rising being told that no one is going to come help her. And then the scenes of Kimberly and Scott walking their neighborhood, finding where someone died in a front room, revisiting the high school that gave the shelter when they escaped their home, and the Navy base that turned them away. Kimberly’s brother, incarcerated at the Orleans Parish Jail adds his story to what happened there as they prisoners were literally abandoned in the dark by the guards and deputies. The bitterness echoed in the rhetorical question “Aren’t we human beings, too?”
As if in answer, a representative from the Chamber of Commerce is shown lauding the recovery of the French Quarter and the return of tourism to New Orleans. Granted, tourism is the industry that fuels the Crescent City’s economy, but the footage of the 9th Ward, still in ruins one year after the storm makes the film’s point about who is welcome to reap the rewards of that industry. And it also reveals the powers that be that have all but abandoned its poor as not just heartless and incompetent, which has already been established (Heck of a job, Brownie), but as criminally short-sighted when it comes to enlightened self-interest, if not being entirely blind to what its true assets are in this couple and those like them.
The people in TROUBLE THE WATER don’t want your pity and neither do the filmmakers who made this scorching documentary. Rather, they want the American public to remember what happened when Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. They want the people who died to be remembered and mourned, they want outrage for the injustices suffered that they and those who lived through the storm endured. They get it, and more power to them for keeping that memory and that anger alive.