Like dozens of other politically-progressive filmmakers, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (co-producers of Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11) traveled to New Orleans in September 2005 to document the failures of the Bush Administration in responding to Hurricane Katrina. They'd hoped to focus on the disaster relief efforts of the Louisiana National Guard recently returned from Iraq, but when that fell through they were scrambling for a new angle when they were approached by Kimberly and Scott Roberts at an evacuation shelter in Alexandria, LA who were looking to sell their eyewitness video shot in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.
Kim and Scott, Lower Ninth Ward residents, had videotaped from the time that a citywide evacuation order was issued on August 28th through the flooding that followed the breaching of the levees, until the camcorder's battery gave out. Though very rough, that home video is as gripping as anything that came out of that disaster.
Shot by Kim, the home video from the 28th shows the few neighbors with cars packing up to leave, while others decide between going to the Superdome or hunkering down in their homes to ride out the storm. When the hurricane hits the next day, the situation quickly deteriorates as the levees are breached and water floods into the low lying neighborhood. The Roberts and their relatives and neighbors retreat to attics as waters continue to rise around them. A recording, played over Kim's video, of a 911 call to an indifferent operator by a distraught woman reporting that her attic is filling with water and that there's no way out for her and her children is chilling.
Not only were the Roberts and their neighbors never rescued, but when they were finally able to lead a group of survivors out of the devastated neighborhood by commandeered row boat, they were denied refuge at a nearby naval station and a local National Guard staging area. Eventually, the Roberts made their way to the shelter in Alexandria, LA where they met Lessin and Deal.
Lessing and Deal attempt to stretch Kim's fifteen minutes of footage in a couple of ways which work to varying degrees. Supplementing with concurrent television coverage mostly works in giving scope, but intercutting Kim's footage with material shot by Lessin and Deal weeks or months later is both narratively confusing and dramatically defusing.
Following the Roberts for eighteen months, the filmmakers document the couple's bureaucratic frustrations getting FEMA assistance checks, a temporary relocation to Tennessee, and return visits and eventual permanent return to their old neighborhood.
The early return trips to the neighborhood are often powerful especially Kim's discovery of the uncollected body of her uncle who was among the nearly one thousand New Orleans residents who drowned, but Trouble the Water looses momentum in its second half as the filmmakers tenuously link the war in Iraq, racism, and classism, into a blanket indictment of the Bush administration's response to the disaster in New Orleans.
Trouble the Water is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio). Drawn from multiple sources the video quality varies considerably but is always sufficient for its purposes. There's no evidence that any flaws in the video quality are due to the DVD authoring, so the DVD presentation probably looks just as it did in theaters.
Optional English and Spanish subtitles are provided.
The 2.0 DD audio is also of varying quality with forced subtitles used when dialogue is otherwise difficult to make out (most often on Kim's footage).
Extras consist of the theatrical trailer, one extended and three deleted scenes, and 38 minutes of questions and answers from two film festivals, and a three-minute segment with Kim Roberts and New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin recorded at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
The best of these extras is the Q&A at the Roger Ebert Film Festival, unfortunately it's also the worst in terms of quality with washed out video and blown-out audio.
Kim Roberts' extended home video footage of the Lower Ninth Ward flooding both justifies and tempers the angry partisan politics of filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, favorably distinguishing Trouble the Water from the common stream of anti-Bush documentaries released during his administration. Although Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke (2006) remains the definitive chronicle of the disaster and debacle in New Orleans, Trouble the Water is a worthy contribution to the record.