While the 3rd anniversary of Hurricane Katrina recycles the same distant aerial images of families waving for help from houses submerged in a fetid swamp, Carl Deal and Tia Leeson’s Trouble the Water presents a direct, on-the-ground story of people who were literally at the center of the storm. The film effectively uses home video shot throughout the chaos, footage that illustrates with grueling clarity what it was like for so many people who couldn’t afford to leave yet, through innovation and fortitude, endured nonetheless. The film’s power largely comes from this footage and how it seamlessly meshes with that shot by the filmmakers. The result is a work that lets the power of the characters shine through without them seeming like victims. Trouble the Water won Best Documentary at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and opened theatrically in late August. I recently sat down with the subjects of the film, Kim and Scott Roberts, as well as co-director Carl Deal.
Williams Cole (Rail): So Kim and Scott, you got out of New Orleans, where you had videotaped a lot of your experience before, during, and after Katrina. Tell us the story of how you met the filmmakers.
Scott Roberts: We met each other basically ’cause we were going to a Red Cross shelter in Alexandria, Louisiana, and we saw these guys with cameras and sound equipment and all that, and I told my wife, “These people look important and we should try to get the tape in their hands and see what they think about it.”
Kimberly Roberts: We’d run out of money. We had about a hundred dollars left, and we was like, “We ought to try to see what we could do with this tape; we might find somebody we could give this tape to; well not give it, but either sell it, or license…you know, see what it’s worth. We need the money ASAP!”
Carl Deal: Tina and I are Brooklyn-based filmmakers and we wanted to go down to Louisiana after Katrina and just try and make sense out of the horror that we saw and the outrage we were feeling. We set out with one story—to look at the National Guard who were in Iraq and we heard that some of the soldiers were going to come home early back to Louisiana. And we did that. But then we connected with Kimberly and Scott two weeks after the storm and we decided to change gears. They presented themselves with such incredible optimism about what was to come, and also an incredible story. What was really impressive about Kim and Scott was that sure, they were angry, but you could also see that the anger wasn’t getting the better of them. They were nobody’s victims. They were ready to take on the world. The story that they told was compelling enough, but then they added, “We videotaped the storm!”
Rail: So what motivated you to videotape throughout the storm in the first place?
Kimberly Roberts: I decided to film because I realized we weren’t going to be able to leave—that was the fact. And just in case it happened like how people said it was going to happen, I wanted to film it, just in case we died. I didn’t want to go out like that. With all I had been through my whole life, I always felt to some degree that my life was meaningful and that I was put here for a reason. If I died, people gonna know how I died. So to some degree, I was feeling like my legacy should live on and people would know what had happened to us. But when the water was coming up like it did, I was less focused on my legacy. It was more like, “Whoa, you seen that?!” I was more surprised and shocked and I wanted to have it on tape.
Deal: What Kimberly and Scott filmed, the day before the storm came, and the hours immediately after the levees broke—is like nothing you’ve seen on television. It’s the ground zero point of view from inside Hurricane Katrina, and on television you were seeing it from the air. And so this just brings you right into the center of the storm.
Rail: Explain what it was like to be at the center of a situation where everyone started to help each other? How did that happen?
Kimberly Roberts: Well, honestly, a lot of people didn’t like us before the storm. Poverty can bring up a lot of animosity. When you live and everybody’s poor, it’s like if I get a little something and I don’t give you none, you feel like I owe you something so now you don’t like me. You don’t know that’s the reason, but that’s the reason why we fight. And we had a lot of people that didn’t like us because we always tried to keep ourselves ahead, always take care of the family around us, people around us. But then suddenly we’re all in this situation where we all needed water, food, somebody to be there for us. I just looked over and I saw their needs and God blessed me to be in a position to have food, have water, have a stable mind, when here they’re freaking out and don’t know what they’re gonna do next. So I kind of just looked over that, and was just there for them, and if I don’t do nothing else with my life, I know one thing, that I blessed people, and I was there for those who didn’t like me. I was there for people who wanted to see me dead or hurt. So it was freeing for me, but it was binding for them—they were bound by those negative feelings that they had for me, because they needed me all of a sudden.
Scott Roberts: When people are down, they wanna bring you down to their level. They think, “We gonna bring them down to our level so that they can be mad for no reason like we are mad for no reason.” So we avoided that—that’s why it has always been me and my wife. But the storm brought us close to a lot of people around us…
Kimberly Roberts: It took the storm for them to see the people that we really were. Now if we were low down and dirty the way that they perceived us to be, we wouldn’t have been there for them. So that’s an interesting question that you ask, and we came together with them and looked over all of that, even though when we got back in town they cursed us out again. [Laughter]
Deal: It’s interesting what Kimberly’s talking about how poverty divides people who are poor. And at the same time, people know how to pull together, to create community to survive—both of those things were happening. The government wasn’t there where it should’ve been, wasn’t prepared when it should’ve been, and Kimberly and Scott and so many thousands of others just like them, in the same situation at least, had to rely on each other.
Scott Roberts: We were the only government at that time.
Deal: Absolutely, I mean you guys are really remarkable people and individuals and a remarkable couple, and there are so many other people who had to do exactly what you guys did. It’s everybody’s story in a way.
Rail: So, in the aftermath of the flooding were you saying, “Where the hell is everyone? Where is the government?”
Scott Roberts: Right after the storm a cop passed in a boat and I asked, “Hey man, we have women and children up here, we have elderly people up here, we have handicapped people up here.” The cop told me, “Hey, that ain’t my problem. We’re looking for dead people first.” After he told me that, I knew from then on that it was time to take matters into my own hands. We couldn’t wait on nobody.
Kimberly Roberts: What I want to say is, this is sad, but the fact is that we’d already been abandoned by the government. So we wasn’t even really looking for the government. The police been abandoned our neighborhoods. It’s people with money and class and privilege that feel that the government owes them something. But if the government was never there, we’re not ever really looking for the government. So we was like: we gotta get out of here on our own.
Rail: So there was this foundation of self-reliance already before Katrina came.
Deal: Kim and Scott are survivors. When you see it in the film, you see when Kim is riding around in her neighborhood the day before the storm. And she asks “Where you going? You going to the Superdome?” and people say, “I don’t know.” And Kim goes, “Well I’m going to the store to get some food.” They knew they weren’t going to the Superdome because it was a bad idea. If the government’s never been there for you before, why are you going to rely on it now?
Scott Roberts: When they were talking about the Superdome, I looked at my wife, and she asked, “You wanna go to that?” and I made that personal decision to stay home. I refused to go to that Superdome. I could tell there was gonna be thousands and thousands of people, and they weren’t going to have the right resources. The horrific stories I hear, I’m very happy we didn’t go.
Kimberly Roberts: That was like a death trap. There were no beds in there; there was no food there. There was no food! The bathrooms start backing up and stuff, that was hell for those people. I’m glad we made the decision not to go. I knew we’d be better off at our house.
Rail: How much is Bush responsible for this in your point of view?
Scott Roberts: It’s not just Bush’s fault. As far as the federal government, the state government, and our local government, all three of them have a major part in this. It can’t just fall on Bush, but he had a major part in this.
Deal: Soon after the floods, Bush said, “We had no idea that the levees would break.” Pretty soon they produced a video that showed him being briefed that very morning that the levees were topping. I think Katrina’s been happening in New Orleans long before the levees broke and long before George Bush was president, but it doesn’t absolve George Bush of any responsibility for the conditions that people were forced to live in New Orleans before the storm. Not to sound like a politician now, but he disabled FEMA with the War on Terror so that FEMA couldn’t do its job. He’s spending hundreds of millions of dollars a day on the war overseas when our infrastructure all over this country is crumbling. He bears a lot of responsibility here.
Rail: Danny Glover is one of the executive producers. He had a quote that Katrina didn’t turn New Orleans into a third world country, but it revealed a third world country. What do you feel about that?
Kimberly Roberts: Ain’t nothing to feel, ain’t nothing to think. That’s naked as the truth can get. No clothes, no skin, just bones; naked. [Laughter] Just naked like that. Yeah man, they all got blood on their hands, from everybody that died. I was telling my husband the other day, I said, “The last four or five mayors of New Orleans, with all this murder that’s going on in this city—they are responsible for the high crime rate in New Orleans.” They failed to push the legislation and push the government to put funds in our schools, and if they are putting funds into the schools, we aren’t getting it, they are lining their own pockets, and you know what the result is? Poverty. The result is these failing schools. The children aren’t learning now—they’re sitting on the block and smoking weed all day. There’s nothing for them to do in school. They aren’t teaching them. They don’t have air conditioning in school, they don’t have the proper amount of books, they don’t have extra-curricular activities or after school functions, they don’t have football teams, recreations, so what are they going to do? They’re going to get in trouble. The education system has failed them, failed their uncles, aunties, mommas—all the people around them that inspired them to be the next whoever. Instead, they are inspired to be nobodies too, because, from generation to generation the schools have failed us.
Rail: How is New Orleans being re-built?
Scott Roberts: Very slowly. You can look at the murder rate now, and you can look at the crime, and really, it is worse than before because they’re not enforcing that children go to school. Now that they have opened all these FEMA trailers by the recreation centers all the parks are closed down; kids are running around at two, three in the morning. It’s gotten a whole lot worse. It’s going to take a lot of work, I mean a whole lot of work, just to get it back to pre-Katrina. We are a long way from getting it fixed, a very long way.
Kimberly Roberts: I guess there is so much to do that you can’t even tell what they are doing, because it is so much to do! You can’t just call it all negative—they have some positive, just a little bit that’s trying to come together since Katrina, which is good. Some effort is better than nothing at all. Mostly people are trying to re-build their houses. A lot of people can’t even afford to live in New Orleans. There are twenty or thirty people staying in one, two-three bedroom house now because the rent is so high. They ain’t doing nothing but pushing people out so they can commit even more crimes. If it wasn’t for this movie, I’d probably be committing crimes, because I have nothing else to look forward to.
Deal: At the same time a lot of people around the country are still passionate about helping rebuild New Orleans. We screen this film for audiences, and there are always a dozen people who have already been to New Orleans volunteering, and another dozen who are about ready to go, so it’s not like all of us have forgotten what happened, and haven’t learned from that, and don’t still want to engage in it. But we’re not seeing that same response from the government. That’s what the problem is.
Rail: But is there an opportunity, or at least a vision, to rebuild New Orleans into something better?
Scott Roberts: I mean, you can close your eyes and have a vision and that don’t mean the goddamn thing isn’t going to get done. So, a vision means nothing until I see the proof is in the pudding.
Kimberly Roberts: The vision for New Orleans is for people with money. Poor people are going to be continuously living with each other because they’re poor. If they begin to re-structure the city by putting people in a position where they can support themselves then things might start to look up. Start putting up more job training schools; start putting up more things so that people can educate themselves, so they can put themselves into position to handle this. That’s not there. If they don’t, this is going to be a worse disaster, man. Katrina will never die. She’s still living right now because people are still suffering from her. This ain’t no game—this is real life. Hopefully through this movie we can be an example for everybody of all classes. Don’t think that just because you have status that it is all about you. No, you reach back and you give to somebody. You reach back and help some people who are less fortunate than you, because you never know. There is talent and it just needs to be discovered. Same thing with this movie, they reached back for us, and did this movie about us, and now people see our real talents that were drowned out by poverty.
Scott Roberts: We were very fortunate.
Kimberly Roberts: Right. These filmmakers gave us the chance to put to take our story and try and turn it into something. So I hope people get that out of this movie. Don’t think that just because you have leverage that you can take that leverage and run with it, because that will kill you.
Rail: In twenty years what is Katrina going to mean?
Kimberly Roberts: Katrina should mean that young people, people all over the world, should push for legislation to get the educational system in place to educate the less fortunate, because they are going to need it to get themselves out of situations. Education can put yourself in a financial advantage to save yourself. So, if nothing else, young people should try to get educated to be able to put themselves in a position to save themselves and their family. That’s one of the reasons why people in New Orleans couldn’t get out, because they were at a financial disadvantage; courtesy of the educational system; courtesy of the government not pushing and providing that in the neighborhoods in New Orleans.
Deal: This is how I think we’ll look back on it… Katrina is, next to slavery, the greatest moral failure of government in our history. And that’s how it will be remembered
Scott Roberts: That was deep.
Kimberly Roberts: Yeah that was deep. That was cutting. You can cut them with that one!