Film : New Orleans: Water, water everywhere
The documentary "Trouble the Water" demonstrates just how revolutionary the widespread use of video cameras can be. The Martha's Vineyard Film Society is bringing the film to the Katharine Cornell Theatre on Friday, October 17.
Two African-American residents of New Orleans's Ninth District, Kimberly and Scott Robbins, used their camcorder to document what it was like to live through the destruction Hurricane Katrina delivered to the city in 2005. Filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal have taken the Robbins's raw footage and turned it into a documentary more powerful than any TV "Survivor" episode.
The Robbins's footage is bumpy and genuinely raw in both language and image. But its lack of polish matters less than the message it delivers - in the present tense. Many New Orleans residents - most of them African-American - think they have woken up in a third world nation when Katrina hits. Mayor Ray Hagin warns the public to evacuate, but there is no public transportation available for those who don't have cars.
One early scene in the documentary, which won a Grand Jury prize at Sundance, shows Ms. Robbins advising a drunk who lives in her neighborhood to leave or get pummeled by the hurricane. Later on, viewers learn he's dead.
Reinforced by news footage and shots like an overhead of a breeched levee that put the crisis in perspective, the film follows how the hurricane gradually built.
Winds climb to 165 mph, and the Robbinses move to the unlit attic in their house with friends and family.
"We can't afford the luxury of getting out," Ms. Robbins says at one point. In a news report clip, the on-camera reporter is blown over by the winds. FEMA director Mike Brown is shown making vacuous comments about being prepared for the worst and hoping for the best.
In the aftermath, things do not get better. The Robbinses are reunited with their dogs (one is later killed by a National Guardsman), and Ms. Robbins retrieves a photo of her mother, who died of AIDS when she was 13 years old. The audience learns that Ms. Robbins was a drug dealer earlier in her life.
Two days after the levees broke, people are living in parking garages, and no food or water is available. Word goes out that people can find shelter at a local Navy base, but those who walk there are turned away by soldiers with M16s, even though it has hundreds of empty beds.
The Robbinses acquire a truck from a relative and drive to Memphis to stay with cousins. One friend who has been staying in a halfway house is refused FEMA aid because he can't establish an address, and they all decide to return to their home city.
"This is the type of stuff you see in a third-world country," says one woman. "This isn't supposed to happen in America." The reality is that it did.
Ms. Robbins's brother, Wink, whom she bails out of jail, describes the experience of going through the hurricane in confinement. An aspiring rapper, Ms. Robbins performs one of her songs.
A year after the levees failed, the camera pans the still-devastated neighborhoods of New Orleans, with row after row of abandoned, un-repaired houses. After footage of a city tourism employee talking about how the downtown has stayed in good shape and is ready for tourists, Ms. Robbins's commentary follows: The downtown is fixed, but the city says, let black people take care of themselves.
With credits from working on Michael Moore documentaries, Ms. Lessin and Mr. Deal end their film with crime-tape bullets that cite post-hurricane facts about New Orleans. The white population has returned, but not the black. The homeless population has doubled. Thousands of livable public housing units are being demolished. The majority of public schools are deemed academic failures.
African-Americans demonstrate in front of City Hall with music. Kimberly and Scott Robbins do not give up. They have formed Born Hustlers Records, featuring Ms. Robbins as Black Kold Madina. We should all buy her CDs in thanks for the way she picked up a camcorder and recorded what the rest of the nation needed to see.
"Trouble the Water," presented by the Martha's Vineyard Film Society, shows at The Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven Friday, Oct. 17, 7:30 pm. $8; $5 for members. 774-392-2972.
Brooks Robards regularly writes on books, film and art for The Martha's Vineyard Times.