Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's Trouble The Water has something that few other documentaries or news reports about Hurricane Katrina can boast: a big chunk of footage shot by a New Orleans resident just before, during, and after the storm. Kim Roberts, an aspiring musician and part-time hustler pre-Katrina, stuck her camera out of her front door as the waters rose, and her ground-level, first-person view of the destruction is as heart-stopping as any action-movie special effect.
Lessin and Deal met Kim and her husband Scott two weeks after the storm, while working on a documentary about Louisiana National Guardsmen newly redeployed to their home from Iraq. When the Guard's higher-ups proved uncooperative, the filmmakers followed the Roberts instead, tracking the couple's long waits for government assistance, and their attempts to reboot their lives. As harsh as Katrina was, it became a character-building adventure for the Roberts and many of their neighbors. Before, they were trapped in a cycle of poverty and occasional criminality; afterward, once they got to see more of the country, and to understand how the country sees them, they experienced a turnaround in self-esteem.
Trouble The Water is infuriating in its depiction of helpless Americans getting left behind, and uplifting in the way it shows the Roberts putting their lives together, but it's also frustrating, because it lacks some focus. It starts off being about the footage Kim shot, but she didn't shoot a lot, and anyone coming to Trouble The Water looking for an insider's take on the storm and its immediate aftermath will be disappointed to find that the bulk of the film takes place post-emergency. Even more bothersome is how Lessin and Deal keep steering away from the most persistently unsettling part of the Hurricane Katrina story, having to do with the multiple ways the rights of American citizens were taken away, by the suspicious and the well-meaning alike. Given that the filmmakers' original idea for their project stalled out due to lack of access, it's disappointing that they didn't explore that angle more. Even the generally upbeat Roberts and their friends note the promises and lies that have been exposed by their predicament. "Freedom exists," one of their neighbors says. "There's just limitations on the freedom."