Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated her house and nearly took her life, 24-year-old Kimberly Roberts at last realized the dream of so many New Orleans natives and broke into show business. She did it in Alexandria, Louisiana, in a sports arena that was serving as a Red Cross shelter. In the echoing cement-block lobby, where a team of documentarians were interviewing a relief worker, Kimberly and her husband, Scott, stepped forward with the assertive friendliness of Lower Ninth Ward street hustlers to mention that they, too, wanted a turn–but only because the filmmakers were a New York crew. “Ain’t gone give this to nobody local,” Kimberly said proudly about the story she was offering. “This got to be worldwide. All the stuff you been seein’ on TV, ain’t nobody got what I got. I got right there in the hurricane,” and she brought her hands together in a box, miming the shape of a video camera.
She turned out to be as good as her word; and so to honor a moment that would alter Kimberly and Scott’s lives and determine the course of the movie you’re watching, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal have made this encounter the opening scene of their documentary Trouble the Water. A chance meeting moved the filmmakers to spend a year on and off with Kimberly and Scott: recording them on a foray back into the ruined Ninth Ward, accompanying their futile visit to a makeshift FEMA office in a shopping mall, traveling along as they relocated to a cousin’s home in Memphis and finally returning with them to New Orleans when they decided to come home. Everything about their lives seems to have found its way into the film: the funeral of Kimberly’s grandmother (one of the hospitalized people who were abandoned in the storm); Scott’s regrets over his past career as a drug dealer (“I hated my life; it was horrible”); the hip-hop songs that Kimberly had hoped would make her fortune, and that are now worked into the movie’s soundtrack (“Introducing the music of Black Kold Madina”). But above all, Trouble the Water makes use of Kimberly’s video recordings, which have earned her a co-credit as the film’s director of photography.
Only a quarter of an hour of Kimberly’s material appears in Trouble the Water, out of a running time of ninety-six minutes; but it so dominates the rest that the film will surely be known as the Blair Witch Project of Hurricane Katrina documentaries. The comparison involves more than the distorted, front-lit close-up of Kimberly’s face, grayed-out and floating in a nocturnal void–the darkness not of a forest but of the attic where she’d taken refuge during the hurricane. Nor does the Blair Witch analogy stop with your sense of trespassing into someone else’s viewpoint as she haphazardly glimpses chaos engulfing her: water rising through the windows, water dripping through the roof, water filling the street to the level of the stop sign on the corner, while more water pelts from the sky and the wind riles the surface of the newly made lake. The most important similarity is that Kimberly seems to have conceived of her video as a self-contained movie, with a setting, a cast of characters and a narrative that risked ending abruptly in midhorror.