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Life Arts    H3'ed 2/19/11

Katrina Through the Lens of Filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal

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My guests today are Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, the director/producers of Trouble the Water, which was nominated for an Academy Award as best documentary feature for 2008.  Welcome to OpEdNews, Tia and Carl.  Your film is a documentary within a documentary about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Can you please tell our readers how Trouble the Water came about?

photo credit: Marianne Rafter

Tia: When Carl and I as filmmakers set out for the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Katrina, we wanted to make sense of the disaster, not by talking to experts or officials, but to people who were surviving it. And because the scale of the tragedy was so immense, we really wanted to tell an intimate, character-driven story, one that would bring unheard voices to the screen, images never before seen, to document underreported stories like the acts of bravery by residents, or the abandonment of thousands of inmates left locked in flooded jail cells, or the homecoming of the thousands of local national guardsmen who were deployed in Baghdad when the levees failed in their hometown. Our challenge was to find these stories, and to distill them into a fluid narrative without recycling the images, sensationalizing the story, or re-inscribing the racist stereotypes that had saturated the 24-hour news cycle. In Kimberly Roberts, her husband Scott, and their companion Brian Nobles, we found the real deal -- smart, funny, undefeated, and determined survivors who were struggling to overcome not only Katrina and its aftermath, but also a system that had failed them throughout their lives.

You refer to Trouble the Water as a "documentary within a documentary," but it really isn't. It is one cohesive work we crafted mostly out of film and video we shot over the course of two and a half years, incorporating material from dozens of third party archival, home video, and institutional sources. By opening the film with 15 minutes of chilling home video that Kimberly herself had recorded in her 9th Ward neighborhood as the storm was brewing, until her battery died just after the levees failed, we were able to bring the audience to ground zero. Into the attics and through the flooded streets. We were as interested in the fact that Kimberly was shooting video, as we were in the video itself, which was choppy and sporadic. 
So we edited and crafted that (and other home video and archival materials) into the first act of the film, as a flashback to the drama we were documenting in the present, hoping we could provide a more emotional and intimate experience of the horror of those three initial days of the flood. And we hope it invests the audience deeply enough in the story that, as the journey continues over the next two and a half years, they would emerge with a feeling of having experienced something not only tragic, but also triumphant and perhaps, even transformative.  

I'm assuming that you didn't go down there knowing about Kimberly and Scott or the amazing footage she recorded. So, how and at what point did you hook up with them?

Kimberly and Scott
outside their flood-damaged home 

Tia: In the first scene in the film you see Kimberly interrupting our filming at a shelter in Alexandria, Louisiana, about ten days after the levees failed. We'd been on the ground with our crew for several days, greeting planeloads of Louisiana national guardsmen returning home from Iraq to a disaster zone, accompanying some back to New Orleans, and interviewing scores of survivors who had just lost everything. And when Kimberly and Scott and Brian found us--literally walked in front of our camera and started talking--we were immediately interested. What drew us to them was their personalities, their charm, their swagger, and the way they talked about finding an opportunity to transform their lives in the middle of this crisis.  

Several days later, Kimberly showed us the tape she had recorded during the storm using a hi-8 camera she had bought on the street a few weeks earlier. She says she bought the camera to record some family events, birthday parties and the like, but when it became clear that Katrina was bearing down and she and Scott would not be leaving the city, she picked up the camera and, for the first time ever, pressed the record button. She was eager to sell the footage. What she captured on that tape, before losing power, gave us a small glimpse into the horror that 100,000 residents, mainly poor, mainly African American, survived. In the ensuing days and weeks, Kimberly, Scott and Brian opened their lives to us and our cameras and we ended up shooting them for two more years.

You do a good job showing how abandoned the residents felt.  The Mayor announces an evacuation but provides no transportation to achieve it. Someone says, "If I had wheels, I'd be gone, too." Between the 165 mile per hour winds and the indifference/neglect of the government, the comment, "We're under siege" is not overkill.  Numerous times Katrina and the war against terrorism are compared, contrasted and connected. Did that frame pre-date your arrival in the Gulf Region or did it evolve as you collected footage?

Tia: Looking at Katrina and the federal government's response to the disaster in the context of the money and manpower spent on the war in Iraq was certainly our minds when we decided to head to Louisiana.  While people clung to roofs, were washed away,  drowning in their attics or struggled to survive in filth, fear, and hunger, the National Guard was nowhere to be seen. The question on everybody's mind at that time, was "Where is the help?" It didn't take much digging for us to learn that some 7,500 Louisiana National Guard soldiers, citizen soldiers who traditionally enlist for deployment at home in disasters such as this, had been sent to Baghdad, along with the state's convoy of high water vehicles. And when we learned that the army was bringing home many of those soldiers whose lives and families had been directly impacted in the disaster, early, before their tour was officially up, we secured permission from the Army to greet the planes and the soldiers as they returned from one war zone to what looked like another in their own hometowns. They were some of the saddest homecomings we have ever witnessed.

Throughout the planning, shooting and editing of Trouble the Water, this theme remained important to us. As we hear Kim and Brian express their own frustration with aspects of the federal response, we also hear President Bush defending the response, and we inserted his voice under footage of Louisiana National Guardsmen patrolling a Baghdad neighborhood on the weekend of Katrina as an ironic counterpoint: "We've got a job to defend this country in the war on terror and we've got a job to bring aid and comfort to the people of the Gulf Coast, and we'll do both." How the war on terror was diverting resources from the needs of people in the US was a huge part of the Katrina story from our perspective, and had to be a thread in the film.

Agreed. Another recurring theme was the very different Katrina realities experienced by those with means and those without. This determined who actually got out and who was left behind. It's heartening and unexpected to see how those facing the storm, despite everything, find strength and support in their faith and in one another. Larry plays a major role in saving neighbors, using a punching bag as a life raft. He and Scott now have a strong connection but they definitely were not friends before Katrina. It's such an interesting dynamic.  Any comments?

photo credit: Marianne Rafter

Carl: The relationship between Kim and Scott, and Larry, as you learn in the film, had been difficult for a long time. You can sense the tension the very first time you see Larry and Kim together,  the day before Katrina hit. Recently, we were in New Orleans speaking at Tulane and Scott explained it this way to a group of young privileged students: poverty drives a wedge between people, pits poor people against other poor people, and creates a mindset where there are too many people competing for too few resources. This is a recipe for violence, and feeds the cycle of poverty. 
In this case, as we saw in Trouble the Water, the gravity of Katrina and the institutional failures around the evacuation, rescue and recovery that followed, allowed Kim, Scott, Larry, even Brian, all to set aside their differences and be the best people they could be, for each other, and for their community. Think about it -- nearly 3,000, mainly poor, mainly African-American, people lost their lives during Katrina, but imagine how many more might have also died tragically were it not for Larry and all the others like him who transcended, stepped up, and responded to the needs of their community where the government didn't.

At a Q &A at the 2009 Roger Ebert Film Festival, you said, "[They] had abandoned the people of New Orleans long before the storm hit."  What did you mean by that, Tia?

Tia: I meant that the local and federal government had abandoned the people of New Orleans long before the storm hit in terms of just about every social need--lack of affordable housing, lack of living wage jobs, sky high incarceration and illiteracy rates, failing public schools, police corruption and brutality, the broken levees. You'd be hard pressed to find a population anywhere in this country that expects less of their public officials and civil institutions. At the same time, especially post-Katrina, you'd be hard pressed to find a community working harder to challenge and change all that.

So would you say that Katrina, in a way, created an opportunity out of a very bad situation?

Tia: Trouble the Water gives an up-close view of people transforming and re-imagining their lives, setting a course to, in Scott's words, "start all over and do it right from the beginning." That's what made an impression on us throughout the making of the film -- watching Kim and Scott create their own opportunities, and then seize them. From making the decision to break out her camera to record footage to sell, to the decision to stop selling drugs, to the decision to pursue a music career.

True. You include some audio of 911 calls from people trapped in attics as the water rose with no way to get to the roof. I felt unclean, like I was listening to the soundtrack for a snuff film.  Did you debate using that material?

Tia: The 911 emergency calls were devastating to listen to and difficult to work with (we scores more that we didn't use in the film), but we felt they were an important record and document and had to be in the film. Those voices brought us all into the attics, helped us give witness to the horror of the thousands upon thousands of people who, like the Roberts, were stranded and left to create their own survival, or tragically to die. Editor Woody Richman cut the haunting 90-second montage that appears in the film, culminating in the footage of citizen Larry rescuing people against a mournful musical score by Neil Davidge and Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack. We hope this scene transcends voyeurism to provide a vivid glimpse of not just abandonment and loss, but also of a community rising in the absence of government to be their own, best, first responders.

You did do a good job on that aspect; it definitely wasn't voyeurism, just incredibly painful to experience,  even at a distance.  In the film, there's a  run-in at an empty naval base where property clearly trumps people in need. Can you talk about that? I'm thinking particularly of the hair-raising: "Get off our property or we're going to start shooting." 

Scott Roberts confronts soldier 

Tia: A number of eyewitnesses recounted the chilling stories of US soldiers drawing guns on hundreds of stranded survivors who sought sanctuary at the US Naval base in the 9th Ward. This was a federal military facility that sat on top of the levee on dry ground, and at the time, had 500 family housing units that had been empty for months. It also had its own generator, so during Katrina its lights shone like a beacon for people seeking shelter in the otherwise blacked-out and flooded city. But when people arrived at the gates, the soldiers there were ordered to draw their guns to disperse the crowd of survivors. We later spoke with the Naval officers involved to corroborate the story -- as one of the officers says in the film, "It was a real eerie feeling, I thought. But you know, we had to do our job and that was to protect the interests of the government, and that's what we did in maintaining the base."

This confrontation was never reported in the press and is documented in Trouble the Water for the first time. But it was no secret at the Pentagon, which responded by commending the soldiers for their performance, with President Bush even issuing an award to the officers involved for "defusing a potentially violent situation." We can only imagine how different the official response might have been had the crowd been made up of white people.

The poor, minorities, elderly, the vulnerable and defenseless are left to fend for themselves whether it's a natural disaster, the economy, or some other crisis. Is that why your website says about your film: " It's not about a hurricane. It's about America"?

Carl:Yes. But if it were only that, then Trouble the Water would have been a story about victims, not heroes. Journalist Naomi Klein actually gave us that tag line, and her full statement was: "This is a transformative film -- one of the most powerful and illuminating documentaries of our time. It boils with rage, sadness, love, hope, reality. It's not about a hurricane, it's about America." So yes, it is about America for all the reasons you identify, and also, for the hope and promise and defiance it depicts.

Agreed. The perky, upbeat employee of the New Orleans Tourism Office also inadvertently echoes this theme of a two-tiered New Orleans. She talks about how the French Quarter and the downtown are back up and running. Tourists are flocking to the city for a good time and don't want to be reminded of Katrina. The truth is that no one wants to be reminded of Katrina, not there or elsewhere. How does mainstream media coverage (or noncoverage) fit into this pattern? Have you been fighting an uphill battle with your film?

Carl: Some reporters in the aftermath of Katrina did a truly admirable job of challenging the Bush Administration in ways we hadn't seen from the mainstream media in the previous five years. But overall, and over time, the major media outlets failed to really explore the racism and inequities that Katrina laid bare, beyond observing that most of those left behind were Black. Instead, in the aftermath, we were bombarded with exaggerated and false reports of widespread looting and murderous mobs roaming the streets of New Orleans when the reality on the ground was far from that, and then shortly thereafter, with reports that life was normalizing during the recovery, also far from the reality on the ground.

It's no surprise that AC Thompson's groundbreaking reporting years later around the police and racist vigilante violence in the aftermath, including shootings of unarmed survivors during Katrina's aftermath, was done for independent outlets Propublica and The Nation, because the mainstream media had clearly dropped the ball. But maybe this apparent disinterest on their part is only a reflection of national policy -- Katrina should have put the battle against racism and poverty and public corruption at the top of the national political agenda, but it didn't. The Bush administration's domestic agenda instead brought deeper cuts in long-standing anti-poverty programs and widened the gulf between black and white, rich and poor. Heck of a job.

As for Trouble the Water, we were able to break through such obstacles with a lot of hard work and a stubborn refusal to give up. After winning Sundance, the film played in 300 theaters across the country, followed by tv broadcasts on HBO and National Geographic that reached millions of viewers. And supported by our community engagement campaign, Trouble the Water has also screened in hundreds of schools, houses of worship, community centers, museums, government agencies, and public policy conferences. 
Educators are using the film and its teaching and community screening guides in their classrooms; campus and faith groups have used it to raise money and recruit volunteers for Gulf Coast rebuilding projects; organizations at the forefront of the recovery, like the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation and Amnesty International, use it as a tool to bring attention to the lack of government accountability and the underlying problems that remained after the floodwaters receded. The film's website, is an active resource for Katrina-related news, information, and action, and has generated more than 25,000 letters to Congress demanding fairness in the federal rebuilding plans and legislation to create green jobs for Gulf Coast residents. So despite the production and distribution challenges facing an independent documentary like ours, we think Trouble the Water has made a positive impact and we hope it will continue to create opportunities for dialogue and action.

Anything you'd like to add before we conclude our interview?

Tia: Thanks so much, Joan. We don't have anything to add at this time. Many thanks for the great questions, and for helping to keep the film and the issues alive.

Thank you both for talking with me. Good luck to you!


Trouble the Water website: It's not about a hurricane. It's about America.

Troubling factoid: According to Sister Judy Zynda, Volunteer Coordinator, St. Bernard Project, if reconstruction continues at the same pace as up to now, all the residents won't be back in their homes until 2025.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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