Ebertfest 2009: Trouble the Water (2008)

Directors: Tia Lessin and Carl Deal

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2009


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Trouble the Water, a highly honored documentary from 2008, is nothing if not a reminder that continuing to listen to the movers and shakers, the flaks and apologists, the stooges and blind faithful of the Bush Administration is to continue the national shame that Administration soiled us all with by its craven indifference to the suffering of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. If you believe what former First Woman (she’s certainly no lady) Barbara Bush said about the evacuees (“And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this (she chuckles slightly) is working very well for them.”), Trouble the Water should disabuse you of that notion. No one’s better off dead, no one’s better off homeless and living on the field of a football stadium, no one’s better off living in their attic to avoid being drown in their bedrooms because the government failed to keep the levees that protected their homes in good working order.

Kim and Michael Rivers, two residents of New Orleans’ 9th Ward, captured the horror of Hurricane Katrina at ground zero. Too poor to afford to evacuate—archival footage of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordering residents to leave the city is followed by a title card informing us that no public transportation out of the city was arranged—the Rivers hunker down for the brewing storm. Kim walks the streets of her neighborhood talking to neighbors, going to the convenience store to stock up on food, encouraging a drunk passed out on a front porch to seek cover, filming him slowly awaken and stagger across the street, and then heading home to watch the clouds gather and the rain start to fall.


The footage is as inside and harrowing as it gets: the Rivers and the neighbors they shelter in their attic running out of food, a large man from the neighborhood wading in the shoulder-high water to catch people who might be floating helplessly down the street, the urgent phone call Kim makes to request rescue being met by a woman on the other end saying that no rescue teams are being sent out. Eventually, the houseful of survivors find a boat and get to higher ground. By the time the Rivers make contact with Deal and Lessin, the aftermath story is developing into the nightmare the rest of the film chronicles.
Michael Rivers tells of going to a military base 10 blocks from their home with other survivors from his neighborhood. The base has been closed by the Bush Administration and is empty except for a skeleton crew of guards; there are homes and rooms that would accommodate 200 families. When the survivors ask for shelter, even if only for one night, they are turned away at gunpoint.


The Rivers revisit the school the school where they finally found some safety; Michael says with more than a touch of irony, “I have a dream,” while pointing to a picture of Rev. King on a classroom wall. The school is now occupied by National Guardsmen; one guardsman, referring to the mess inside the school, says, “I’m sorry, but civilians just don’t know how to take care of themselves.” The stink of condescension and lack of feeling of these “peacekeepers” is worse than the drunk Kim warned to take cover who is found dead in the living room of one of the houses on their street.

We watch the Rivers leave New Orleans in a “borrowed” truck carrying 30 people; homeless people littering the roadways beg to be taken with them. When Kim reaches her uncle’s home about 200 miles from New Orleans, she learns that his mother—her grandmother—was abandoned at Memorial Hospital during the storm. He was told the hospital had been evacuated, but he, like all the poor of New Orleans, was lied to. Kim arranges to bail her brother out of jail so that he can attend their grandmother’s funeral. “Wink” has his own horror story of being abandoned in the lock-up by the guards and having to ride out the storm: “Hard men, they was crying,” he says to communicate the desperate conditions.

Lessin and Deal intersperse the storm footage Kim shot with both heir own footage following the Rivers odyssey to some semblance of normalcy, as well as Katrina news coverage. We see an idiotic reporter sheltering next to a mailbox to show how fierce the winds are; I laughed in sadistic glee when he ran for cover and was blown off his feet, but really, it wasn’t his fault he was out there. The producers of those shows had long given up making anything but a mockery of citizens’ right to know anything of substance—a hurricane was just another reality TV opportunity. One journalist who found her voice again was Paula Zahn, who blistered FEMA director Michael “Brownie” Brown for his agency’s complete failure to do its job. It was a highlight of the Katrina coverage that I’m glad Lessin and Deal included.


Putting one’s life back together isn’t easy. The Rivers plan to resettle in Memphis, but can’t find work. Michael sells 10 puppies from his dog Baby’s litter to raise the money to return to New Orleans. (Baby is later shot by National Guardsmen for reasons unknown.) He was an admitted drug dealer who decided this do-over chance in his life was an opportunity to start things the right way. He now is being trained to work in the construction business by a generous employer and is rebuilding his city. Kim, a rap artist, started her own record label. We are treated to an obscenity-strewn rap of Kim’s life that probably set many of the white heads in the Virginia Theatre audience on edge. I’m not a rap fan, but her story and the truth of her words struck me as incredibly inspirational.

God is mentioned many times in this film. When Kim, Michael, and the other survivors talk of their faith, we can recognize it as both genuine and the last refuge of the desperate. When archival footage shows us President Bush asking the nation to pray for the victims of Katrina, we recognize it as the only help he’s willing to offer them. This remarkable film should make you mad, should make you stand in awe of the incredible will of a downtrodden people, and should make anyone who continues to remain indifferent to the suffering of others in this country very, very afraid.

There is a way for you to take action to support Gulf Coast recovery. Go to the Trouble the Water site and be part of an email petition. Host a screening. Learn talking points. Make a difference. l


  • Daniel spoke:
    24th/04/2009 to 2:06 pm

    This was my pick as the best documentary from last year, and I saw a good 15-20. I kind of hoped it would edge out MoW on Oscar night, but that was a foreshadowed win for over a year.
    I also giggled at the blown away reporter. And, as a fan of socially relevant rap (you have some impressive talent from Chicago – Common and Lupe Fiasco, to name two) and a non-fan of top-40 pop/rap (everything Kanye West has done after his first album), I thought Kim’s rap “Amazing” was one of the highlights of the film. All of the emotion, all of the pride, all of the determination poured out through her words.
    This was just an excellent film featuring two great characters, and it should continue to be screened as long as people show up to watch it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/04/2009 to 8:53 am

    Agreed. Kim and Michael were at the screening, and I wanted to hear the Q&A. Unfortunately, the handheld camera gave me vertigo yet again, and I had a colossal headache by the end of the film. I refused to leave the screening, at least. I’m going to have to see a doctor to see if I can’t do something about this; it’s really crippling.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    25th/04/2009 to 10:19 am

    Great write-up, and thanks for the pointer. I knew it was coming up on HBO — and here in Alabam it certainly got nowhere near me in the theaters — but I didn’t know it was this soon. Lo and behold, when I went to set it up to DVR, my wife had already done so.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/04/2009 to 11:16 am

    Smart wife you’ve got there, Rick!

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