“Trouble the Water” (2008)

Last year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner for best documentary, Trouble the Water, took a while to get to me on DVD, but was worth the wait. Kimberly Rivers Roberts, an aspiring rapper and New Orleans resident, was too poor to evacuate the city for Hurricane Katrina, so instead she turned on her video camera and captured one small group’s survival. Roberts is clearly no professional; her camera shakes and judders, yet what she films is so fascinating that I hardly was bothered by the camera motion. As the storm begins, she and her husband invite friends and neighbors in to weather the storm. As the levees break and the water rises, they realize this is not just another hurricane.

Roberts, who teamed with documentarians Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (who made Fahrenheit 9/11), is one of the few able to leave the city right after, and later returns. Intercut with her own footage are news clips that include Bush and the FEMA director making what would come to be disastrously ill-informed commentary. The doc also pulls the veil back on the myth of New Orleans recovery, and shows how devastated the city still is, especially in the poorer areas. Most damning, though, is that the number of white residents who returned vastly outstripped those of color, many of who remained displaced in what was called the greatest forced migration in US history since the Dust Bowl. This film is sobering and empowering, with glimpses of cautious optimism in the face of staggering opposition.

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