As with Ed Pincus and Lucia Small’s The Ax in the Attic, Trouble the Water was prompted by the outrage felt by two documentarians at the catastrophe unfolding in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Yet unlike their predecessors, directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal sensibly refuse to put themselves front and center in their film—a somewhat amazing development, given their long-standing creative relationship with the king of nonfiction narcissism, Michael Moore—in favor of squarely focusing their sights on married survivors Kim and Scott Roberts, whom they encounter by chance days after the levees break. Meeting Kim and Scott is, to put it mildly, akin to hitting the proverbial documentary jackpot, as the duo not only have an amazing first-hand tale to tell about braving the storm in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward, but—thanks to Kim’s decision to record the maelstrom with a camcorder she had bought only one day before the weather turned deadly—the stunning footage to prove it.
The couple’s arduous attempts to receive FEMA payments and set up temporary residence at a cousin’s Memphis home are intercut with Kim’s camcorder movie, a structure that captures not only the nightmarish ordeal they endured, but the way in which that ordeal continued—in a different, only slightly less harrowing fashion—after the rains and winds had subsided. Lessin and Deal’s panoramas of displaced Nola residents at makeshift shelters are by now familiar but nonetheless piercing visions of a citizenry let down by their local, state, and federal governments. Still, the film crystallizes its indictment of the response to Katrina, the racial and economic issues underlying that response, and the continuing mismanagement of recovery efforts through the specific experiences of Scott and Kim, the former a drug dealer who admits to having been on a path to jail or the grave, and the latter a devout aspiring rapper who displays courageous, levelheaded leadership during the crisis.
No unnecessary authorial pushing and prodding is required on behalf of Kim and Scott’s amazing story, given that it manages to touch upon so many fundamental aspects of the Katrina calamity, including the communal altruism shown by those unable to evacuate the city, the incompetence (and, in Kim and Scott’s case, heartlessness) exhibited by some factions of the armed forces and relief teams, and the sweeping fear and rage born from powerlessness. The directors’ unwavering concentration on their two subjects’ plight simultaneously brings the calamity down to a human scale and, consequently, enhances the depth of the tragedy. It also, however, allows for an artless depiction of sacrifice, compassion, altruism, and hope amid misfortune, from the sight of a man selflessly braving the watery streets to rescue neighbors, to the deep gratitude shown to Kim by a pair of elderly women she helped care for in her dingy attic, to, finally, Scott’s legitimately uplifting resolve to turn a monumental disaster into a vehicle for positive personal transformation.