Trouble the Water (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Living in the Philippines during the first eleven years of my life, I have witnessed what typhoons can do up close. The sight of streets where the water level—brown, full of debris, and controlled by a powerful currents—can go past six feet is scary for any child who has even only a slight comprehension of what is happening. I remember one typhoon in particular when it has gotten so bad that my mom welcomed our neighbors to stay in our house since it had an a bit of elevation. The water level seemed to go up every ten minutes. It threatened to drink us whole. There was no water in the faucet and no electricity in the outlets, only silent fears. We had food but supply was limited. Still, what is impossible to forget is that fear that we could possibly die. I observed the water level along the marble steps creeping up every thirty minutes or so and thinking there was no rescue. We were on our own.
One of the saddest and most maddening realities shown in “Trouble the Water,” directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, is the sight of New Orleans underwater right after Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levee, compounded with 911 calls of people in their attics begging to be rescued while the operators could neither say nor do anything to help. A caller asked, “So we’re going to die?” There was only silence on the other line. They knew there was no rescue team deployed by the proper authorities. Clearly, this was a point in American history where this country was an embarrassment.
The documentary takes a personal approach. We follow aspiring rapper Kimberly Rivers Roberts and Scott Roberts, her husband, before, during, and after the devastation. Before the storm, we are given a small tour of the neighborhood through Kimberly’s camera: the abandoned streets, the people who had no choice but to remain because they had neither means nor modes of transport, the ominous sky. In the middle of the storm, I was reminded of my childhood fears during a typhoon: the roaring winds, the increasing water levels outside, the blackout, the leaky roof.
Weeks after the hurricane, we are shown places that Kimberly and Scott visited only days after the storm. Their anger is not shown in a confronting way. Instead, it is hidden inside disappointment and sadness from what had already occurred. We watch them get treated with disrespect by those in charge. Again, not in a confronting way. It is in the look that some military personnel gave them and sometimes how their questions—like why the rescue teams were not there when they were needed most—were answered. These were justified questions because they came from people who lost everything: possessions, trust in their government, loved ones.
But these only scratch the surface. Some tragedies can only be experienced to be believed. I was especially horrified by the reality of empty houses with dead bodies. The houses were supposed to have been inspected and the corpses properly dealt with, but the bodies were left to be discovered by civilians. You will not believe where and how people who were supposed to be taking care of the survivors spent their time.
“Trouble the Water” is special because it is given a specific human stamp despite the national disaster. Kimberly’s well of optimism moved me. She has talent, too. At one point, she gives us a performance, a song that details her very troubled past, what helped her get to where she is, and her inspiration to move forward. In a way, she is New Orleans: despite its flaws therein lies an indomitable spirit.