Trouble the Water: Lessin and Carl Deal’s Docu of Hurricane Katrina

The day before Hurricane Katrina hit, 24-year-old Kimberly Rivers Roberts, a resident of New Orleans’ 9th Ward, turned her new video camera on herself, declaring, “It’s going to be a day to remember.”

With hardly any supplies and no way of leaving her hometown, Roberts taped her harrowing ordeal as Katrina raged and the levees failed.

Directed and produced by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, TROUBLE THE WATER opens with this unforgettable home video footage, then follows Kimberly and her husband Scott on a two-year odyssey – from the devastation of the storm to their escape from the city, to resettlement in Memphis, to an eventual return to a decimated New Orleans – telling a story of transformation, heroism and love.  A recent Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature, the film debuts THURSDAY, APRIL 23 (8:30-10:15 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.

While filming in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, Deal and Lessin were approached by Kimberly and Scott Roberts at a Red Cross shelter in Central Louisiana.  “They were two self-described street hustlers, with intelligence, guts and the kind of hope that is based in will, rather than experience,” says Deal.  Weaving together home video from the Roberts’ camera, news coverage of events as they unfolded in real time and footage they shot of the couple over the course of two years, Deal and Lessin construct a portrait of a community that had been abandoned long before Katrina hit, and a husband and wife surviving not only deadly floodwaters, armed soldiers and bungling bureaucrats, but also their own past.

Fifteen minutes of home video that Kimberly shot the day before and the day of the hurricane anchors the first act of TROUBLE THE WATER, and captures the scene inside her attic as the storm rages outside and neighbors huddle together sharing food and prayer.  Rising floodwaters force them to flee to the two-story house across the street, using a punching bag as a floatation device.

The initial official response to the flooding is as bad as, if not worse than, the storm.  Over images of devastation, the documentary plays a montage of heartbreaking 911 emergency phone calls, as anonymous voices plead with dispatchers for help.  One dispatcher apologizes, but says there is nothing she can do.

Unwilling to wait for a rescue that never comes, Kimberly and Scott become their own first responders, leading a crowd to a naval base in search of shelter, only to be turned away at gunpoint.  After five days abandoned in their city, they find a truck and drive two dozen desperate neighbors to higher ground.

TROUBLE THE WATER follows Kimberly and Scott’s journey through post-hurricane despair and chaos as they struggle to navigate the FEMA bureaucracy, resist eviction from temporary housing, cope with traumatic stress, and try to make a new start in Memphis.

An aspiring rap artist, Kimberly (a.k.a. “Black Kold Madina”) lost all her music in the hurricane – or so she thought.  The documentary features Rivers’ spontaneous performance of her own song “Amazing,” shortly after she finds the only existing copy of her recordings with a relative in Memphis.  It reveals her talent as a performer and writer, compacting her life story into explosive poetry.

TROUBLE THE WATER ends where it began, in New Orleans.  The couple is back in the city – Kimberly is working on her music career and Scott is making an honest living as a carpenter.  Kimberly observes, “Katrina is not over…we’re still being affected right now, by not educating us, robbing us out of the opportunity [to] be the next whoever.”  Three years after the storm, the city is still struggling.  Federal rebuilding dollars have not been disbursed; rents have doubled, along with the homeless population; and perhaps most troubling, the rebuilt levees in New Orleans are flawed and vulnerable.  And the National Guard has finally arrived in the city, policing the streets.

TROUBLE THE WATER is a powerful testimony to the resilience of a community, raising questions that continue to haunt America today:  Who is vulnerable in our society, and why?  What does it takes to beat the odds and survive, or even triumph?

In addition to receiving an Oscar nomination, TROUBLE THE WATER won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, the 2008 Gotham Independent Film Award, the Anne Dellinger Grand Jury Prize and a Human Rights Award at the 2008 Full Frame Film Festival.  It was also nominated for an NAACP Image Award and a Producers Guild of America Award.

Tia Lessin was a producer of the Michael Moore films “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which received the Palme d’Or, and the Academy Award-winning “Bowling for Columbine.”  She received two Emmy nominations as a producer of Moore’s TV series “The Awful Truth.”  Carl Deal was also a producer of “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Bowling for Columbine.”  His other documentary credits include the Sundance Film Festival favorites “My Kid Could Paint That” and “God Grew Tired of Us.”

TROUBLE THE WATER is directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal; producers, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal; executive producers, Josyln Barnes, Danny Glover, Todd Olson, David Alcaro; directors of photography, P.J. Raval, Kimberly Rivers Roberts; editor and co-producer, T. Woody Richman; additional editing by Mary Lampson.  For HBO:  senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.