Trouble the Water

These days, technology has everybody thinking they can be a filmmaker or photographer. And technology also compels some people to record every moment or thought in their life.

Sometimes, that's a bit much. But sometimes, that's a miracle.

"Trouble the Water" is one such miracle. Kimberly Rivers Roberts, an aspiring rapper and self-described hustler, thought she could make a quick buck with whatever footage she could shoot as Hurricane Katrina loomed ("I might even show it to the white folks," she tells a neighbor). Instead, her harrowing footage provided a foundation for an Oscar-nominated film and her own rebuilt life.

The film comes to DVD this week, four years after New Orleans suffered the double whammy of Hurricane Katrina and government incompetence. As the film's tagline says, "It's not about a hurricane. It's about America."

That's about as preachy as the film gets. Much like Spike Lee's "When the Levees Broke," the storytellers who lived through Katrina have the power to make the point without the filmmakers getting in the way.

In this case, Kimberly was one of the filmmakers. She turned on her camera and, until the battery died, recorded her neighborhood as the winds picked up, the streets emptied and the waters rose. Eventually she, her husband, Scott, and various neighbors and family members holed up in the Roberts' attic and moved around the area from there until getting help five days later.

"Katrina, she's a bad chick," Kimberly says.

Filmmakers Tia Lessen and Carl Deal weave together Kimberly's footage, news clips and aftermath footage of Kimberly's friends, family and neighbors trying to rebuild their lives. Even though you know Kimberly survives, her footage is as gripping and disturbing as any horror film. Even though you know others do not survive, it's hard not to have your heart skip a beat when you hear a 911 operator utter the cold words, "There is no rescue team."

Those of us who were glued to the TV in August and early September four years ago saw one side of the story. Media coverage gave the impression that the people of the Ninth Ward were helpless, traumatized or criminal. What "Trouble the Water" gives is an up-close look at people who reached out to their neighbors and strangers, and worked hard to survive.

It's a warts-and-all look at the people of the Ninth Ward and the U.S. government and institutions. And it's the people of the Ninth Ward who come out looking much, much better.

The DVD extras include deleted and extended scenes, and an appearance by the filmmakers and the Robertses at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film won the Grand Jury Prize. Best of all is footage of Kimberly at the Democratic National Convention, where she gets some long-awaited face time with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

The release of "Trouble the Water" all but completes the DVD roster of this year's Oscar-nominated documentaries. The winner, "Man on Wire," and the Werner Herzog Antarctic film "Encounters at the End of the World" were released earlier this year.

The theme of Government as Bad Guy resonated among two other nominated films. Out earlier this month was "The Garden," about development threatening to destroy a garden that was created to help a community in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

The gardeners, mostly immigrants growing their own food supplies, summon the courage to take on city hall. "The Garden" won best documentary feature honors at the Silverdocs, the American Film Institute's documentary festival in Washington, D.C.

The DVD roster of nominees will be complete next week with the Sept. 1 release of "The Betrayal." Filmed over 23 years, it's the story of a family who comes to the United States after the Vietnam War, trusting they will be cared for because the father helped the C.I.A. during the war.

Instead, the family endures poverty and racism here, as well as violence and gang warfare. It was the first directorial effort by Ellen Kuras, who had previously established herself as a cinematographer ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "4 Little Girls"). She also handed the cameras off to the film's subject, Thavisouk Phrasavath, and the film became a collaboration between the two.

Extras include an audio commentary by Kuras, an interview with Kuras and Phrasavath, archival and newsreel footage, excerpts of Phrasavath's first interview in 1986 and his return to Laos.


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