Eye of the Storm
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 22, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Howard Feinstein interviewed Trouble The Water directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal for our Summer ’08 issue as well as the film’s subjects, Kim and Scott Rivers, in a sidebar to the piece. Trouble The Water is nominated for Best Documentary.
Brooklynites Tia Lessin and Carl Deal had the near-perfect recipe for what I consider the near-perfect documentary: a unique situation, inimitable subjects, a strong but non-didactic political thrust and that most elusive of ingredients, serendipity. Shocked at the government’s inaction and ineptitude after Katrina, the filmmaking couple went to New Orleans in 2005 to make a doc about the National Guard’s role, or lack of one, in all this. After losing their access, they met Kim and Scott Roberts in an Alexandria, La., shelter. Once they saw the crude footage Kim shot during the storm that flooded their low-lying neighborhood known as the Lower Ninth, they knew they were on to something. Kim’s newly purchased used camcorder chronicled not only the effects of the hurricane but also the role the government played in the suffering of so many even after the waters receded.
Wisely, the directors, who have produced much of Michael Moore’s TV and film work, did not tamper with Kim’s footage. Instead, they show it and then revisit many of the places and people she encountered during the crisis. Trouble the Water is a model of what documentaries should be and what they are, by definition, meant to reveal. To my mind, it is one of the great documentaries of all time. Yes, it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, has played many festivals, and has been written about glowingly, but all of those honors from the past year pale in comparison to the film’s important place in the history of documentary filmmaking. The film will open in August through Zeitgeist Films.
When you first went to do the story on the National Guard, can you sum up for me what happened, what didn’t happen and how much footage you got? Deal: We decided to go to Louisiana about a week after Hurricane Katrina because Tia had spotted a little blurb in the New York Times about the Louisiana National Guardsmen returning from Iraq to the devastation at home. Some were coming back homeless, and we saw this as an opportunity to explore.
This is a separate issue from Bush not wanting to bring the guard back to help? Lessin: [The Guard] were deployed in Baghdad instead of in Louisiana at the time of Katrina. And so they were returning to their homes a little late. Some of them were returning to help, some of them were returning because their homes were underwater — they were trying to sort things out. We thought it was a way to get into the story in a personal way and to make the connection between the Iraq war and what was happening in the States.
Deal: I don’t know how many billions of dollars now have been spent on the war in Iraq, but it’s well over the $100 million that it would have taken to construct a levy system in New Orleans that would not have failed during Katrina. So it’s interesting to look at the impact that this war on terror has had here at home.
Lessin: And the priorities of the Bush administration.
So you talked to a number of people and then you lost your access? Deal: Yeah, we spent about three or four days greeting planeload after planeload of soldiers coming back to very bittersweet homecomings. It was one of the saddest things that I’d ever seen. We spent several days with the soldiers and their families, and at a certain point the PR flack for the Louisiana National Guard cut off access.
Lessin: There were a couple of interviews where a guardsman said, “We had all the high-water vehicles in Iraq. We couldn’t bring them home with us. Sorry.” The PR people heard that and got quite concerned.
Where were you when they told you? Lessin: We were in Alexandria. The National Guard Army were these soldiers who were returning freshly right on the highway, and across the parking lot was the Red Cross shelter you see in the film. And so Carl took one of the crews and wandered over across the parking lot looking for National Guardsmen who were staying at the shelter because we were still trying to follow that story in this other venue. And he was ready to interview the guy who is running the shelter when Kimberly got in the frame. She got right in the middle of the interview, interrupted the interview, shot the interview and took over. So essentially she not only took over the interview, but took over our film.
When did you first see her footage? Lessin: It wasn’t immediate. It was several days later.
Was she by herself when you met her? Lessin: She was with Scott and some people they had saved and brought to the higher ground. The story that she described was extraordinary. Everybody had extraordinary stories, I know that. But what Kim and Scott described, and the odyssey that they went through to get out of town, was jaw-dropping. At the end she said, “And I have it on tape.” We were eager to see the tape, but we were also captivated by this woman, this natural-born storyteller.
Deal: [Kim and Scott] had their extraordinary story, but they also had an extraordinary ability to tell that story. Not just by the fact that they had videotaped some of their ordeal, but they just had a true gift for gab.
Lessin: Kim got to know us a little bit. We told her about who we were. We had a lot of frank conversations. She interviewed us, we talked to her. She wanted to build a trust with us because what she had was something she felt was very valuable.
And she was very open about, in a sense, hustling. It is her nature to hustle, no? Deal: She’s a survivor. She knows how to survive with whatever’s at her disposal.
Did she mention money at the beginning? Lessin: Well, let me first mention that she had never picked up a video camera a day in her life. It was serendipity that she had the camera, that she bought it a week earlier, but once she had it, she absolutely thought, well, as long as I’m stranded in my city, I might as well make a buck off of it. And really, her intent when she was filming in that moment was that she was going to have some footage she could sell. Sell it to some white folk, as she says in the film. But then it took on more than that. At a certain point she realized she was witnessing something incredibly historic, and she thought she was going to die. She told us she felt the camera was going to be the only thing left behind, that she and Scott weren’t going to be able to tell the story.
I like the way Scott guides us around. It’s low-key. He has a very clear way of narrating when he takes us back to all of his hangouts in New Orleans. Lessin: By the time Kim and Scott got to Alexandria, they were looking at images that the media were broadcasting about what they had just been through, and they realized [these images] were superficial and they had a different story they were determined to get out there. It wasn’t about the money then: It became their mission. I think a lot of documentary filmmakers have an idea in their head and they go and pursue that and make that film. I think it was a good lesson for us that it’s not really what’s in your head, it’s what’s in front of your camera — what’s beyond your camera lens — that counts.
After showing the horror of what Kim and Scott went through, the film ends with them at a rally, singing and hopeful. Did it just sort of happen that way, or did you deliberately decide to end the movie on a more positive note? Lessin: The challenge of making a film like this was that we couldn’t control the ending. It could have gone any number of different ways for Kimberly and Scott. We were well aware of that. So the answer to that question is we just documented what happened in their lives, and if it had gone a different way, it would have had a different ending. Because we didn’t know where the film was going, I think we tried to bring the audience on that journey, too. Sometimes documentaries telegraph where they’re going at the very beginning. We like the fact that the film ends on a positive note.
You chose a structure for the film that shifts backward and forward in time. Some find it confusing. Can you talk about why you made this decision? Lessin: Mostly, it was a practical matter. We used flashbacks and non-linear storytelling during the first half of the film because we had a problem of coverage: Kim’s camera battery died during the hurricane, and as they made their four-day journey out of the city, there were crucial scenes that she wasn’t able to document that we felt had to be in the film. So we decided to anchor the story in the present — Kimberly and Scott’s return to New Orleans with us two weeks after the storm where we revisited some of those scenes together. And then we dug deep for archival footage that matched Kim’s handheld POV; news reports to remind the audience what the rest of us were seeing; the horrifying 911 calls that, set against the footage of rising floodwaters, tell a bigger story. And ultimately, by moving back and forth in time, I think we created a rhythm that mirrors the way traumatic memory interrupts the present. So if some people find it disorienting, maybe that’s a good thing. Also, when we first met them Kimberly and Scott were going through posttraumatic stress. Part of what they were experiencing in that moment, in the present, were the nightmares. Their minds were going back. So that story structure was reflecting what was actually going on with them, and what we were experiencing with them.
Non-linear thinking. Deal: People going through posttraumatic stress whipsaw back and forth and get a certain feeling of chaos.
So what’s the Lower Ninth like now? How has it changed? Or maybe it hasn’t? Deal: A huge swath of the Lower Ninth Ward is now just wild swampland, essentially. The houses have been razed, the debris has been removed, and there’s block upon block upon block of nothing but tall grass and birds and insects. It’s gone back to the wild. That’s the part that’s very close to the canal. There are sections that are coming back.
Is that process or redevelopment really working? Lessin: The thing that was stunning to us as New Yorkers coming in from the outside was that every time we came to New Orleans — and we’ve been in New Orleans a dozen times in the past couple of years — we saw that things were changing very, very little. From visit to visit, we sort of expected, even as the cynics that we are, some significant rebuilding to be going on. And nothing really was happening. We tried to represent that in the film. Particularly as New Yorkers in the aftermath of 9/11, we saw how rapidly things changed in Tribeca, so it was a surprise to us and it continues to be a surprise.
What is the state of the broken levy now? Lessin: There are a lot of levies in New Orleans. The one in the Lower Ninth Ward, they repaired it.
Properly? Lessin: No. It will still not withstand a category 4 or 5 hurricane. Those neighborhoods that were vulnerable during Katrina remain vulnerable.
I like that the film shows that Katrina, horrible as it was, was not just an isolated incident for residents of the Lower Ninth. Lessin: Kimberly and Scott have been through a lot of storms, not just hurricane storms but the storms of a lot of shit that has come their way in life. It’s all part of their lives. They’ve been up against tragedy from day one, and they always come out the other end. But New Orleans is still struggling, and they’re struggling too.
Kim and Scott Rivers Q&A
Few in New Orleans’ infamous Ninth Ward, or Lower Ninth, have the luxury of contradictions. It’s not just that the area is so poor and neglected, it is also a neighborhood in which the effects of racism toward African Americans is exceptionally palpable. Even under segregation, New Orleans was considered more polarized, more hateful, if you will, than other Southern cities. And the Lower Ninth was, and is, a negative symbol of its shame.
Kim and Scott Rivers are a remarkable couple who have defied the odds. They refuse to be among the no-hopers in a no-hope community. Yes, they have been through hell: drugs, both selling and using, and relatives lost to AIDS, for starters. Self-described “street hustlers,” they have used cunning and willpower to create constructive, self-actualized lives.
Kim is charismatic, to say the least, an extrovert who refuses to censor what she articulates, an open book who makes most of us seem false by comparison. She is religious. And, under the name Black Kold Madina, she is a gifted rapper with the moxie to go full throttle for career success. Her phenomenal performance in the film of her song “Amazing” is honestly autobiographical. (“I’ve been picked up and let down but I bounce right back/ Cut a fella’s fucking face with a razor blade…We got married as soon as I turned legal age.”) Kim’s insatiable curiosity led her to buy a used Camcorder for nearly nothing the day before Katrina hit; without her footage, there would be no Trouble the Water, much less a historical record of the tragedy.
Her husband, Scott, is calmer, more introverted. He is an observer. We see that when he and Kim revisit sites from the Katrina days and he tells us the back stories. Now, three years after Katrina, he has learned carpentry, with the stated goal of committing himself to rebuild a city that, despite its multiple drawbacks, is nevertheless his and Kim’s hometown — as it is of their baby daughter born earlier this year. — H.F.
I like that in the film Katrina doesn’t seem an isolated event in terms of the history of the Lower Ninth. Rather it is another awful event in the area, part of the continuum of life there. Does the strength shown by the people in the film following Katrina derive from the strength they’ve had to muster just to survive daily life in the Lower Ninth? Scott: Katrinalike things have been happening for years, we just didn’t have a name for it.
Kim: It’s the same in New Orleans as everywhere else. The politicians neglect their citizens. They vote them in, they look out for each other, help their friends and their families instead of putting money in the community. They build schools to educate their children. There’s a lot of neglect.
I get the feeling that Mayor Nagin did not do a good job, nor did Governor Blanco. Kim: Actually I feel like it’s all the folks, from Bush to Kathleen [Blanco] — all of them. They should have been ahead on this, instead of enjoying their money and enjoying their lives. They knew the condition of the city. They knew people weren’t going to be able to get out.
Scott: We knew there was going to be a disaster. We knew it.
How about Bush’s mother’s comment thatthe Superdome isn’t bad for these people? Scott: They really don’t care.
Kim: Right, right. It’s not their grandchildren. It should have been a wake-up call.
Tell me about the scene in the recovery center, where the guy refers to the camera’s presence while you are trying to get your check. Scott: We were all in despair.
Was it just incompetence at the center, or was the response of the workers there intentional? Scott: I’d say a mixture of both.
And the tourist bureau scene, in which the woman presents such a rosy picture of New Orleans? Kim: That’s the norm. They perform down there. It’s all about the French Quarter. The real issues are not in the forefront. The French quarter was on higher ground. It wasn’t flooded.
The text at the end of the film about prices doubling is especially troubling. Scott: They raised the rents so high.
Kim: People are getting like $900 a month income. They can’t afford $1,200 rent plus school costs.
Do you think they want to gentrify the Lower Ninth? Kim: Not just the Lower Ninth, the whole city — because of the crime. Everybody is going instead of coming back. You can see the people who are living under the Claiborne overpass in New Orleans, 200 people in tents, just lined up. It wasn’t like that before Katrina. Many of these people have mental-health problems. There’s nowhere for them to go.
What about shelters? Scott: They just opened one up, but they still have to get that right.
People don’t want to go to shelters. They feel more secure outside. Kim: Right, right. They get ripped off in the shelter. They’ve got to follow rules.
Kim, tell me about your rapping. Kim: We have our own label, Born Hustler Records. I’ve wanted to do it but haven’t had opportunities. Then Katrina gave me that opportunity. I could achieve my dream and get my music out there. Getting my own label means to own my own business, my own music rights. It’s my own independent label. Right now I’m working with my brother and this young lady named Norma Spencer. Both of them are on my album coming out now. Slowly but surely, I’ll try to get it out there.
Is it hard finding the time to do the music with your young baby there? Kim: Right now I’m doing everything from home. So my baby is right there. I’m on the computer doing my music thing.
So you find crevices of time. Kim: You’ve got to be a multitasker [laughs].
Are you glad you moved back to New Orleans after staying in Memphis? Kim: I’m glad.
Scott: I’m glad I moved back because I want to help make my city right. As long as I do my part, we get a movement going. I’m sticking to my words and doing what I have to do to get my city back.
The film ends on an optimistic note, with a band at the end. Are people bonding in solidarity at the demonstration, or was that just you guys? Kim: We were fighting in front of city hall to raise awareness about our conditions. We’re there for the people who couldn’t.