On Aug. 28, 2005, with Hurricane Katrina bearing down on the New Orleans, Scott and Kimberly Rivers Roberts made the fateful decision to weather the storm instead of evacuate. Armed with a video camera, Kim started wandering around their Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, interviewing friends and relatives who had also chosen to stay in the city.
It is readily apparent from watching the pre-landfall footage that none of them anticipated the dire struggle for survival which was about to unfold. Not only did they expect the levees to hold like they had for every storm since the Great Flood of 1927, but they had no reason to suspect they'd be utterly abandoned by local, state and federal authorities in the event of a massive natural disaster.
But as we all know, that's precisely what happened, and thousands of suddenly-homeless citizens ended up stranded for days on end without any sustenance. They were forced to fend for themselves during a triple-digit heat wave, while awaiting the proverbial cavalry which never arrived.
"Trouble the Water," nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary category, is a shocking expose' which enables you to be a fly on the crumbling levee walls as Kim and her husband shift from carefree observers into survival mode. In virtually the blink of an eye, the atmosphere goes from ominous to desperate as the water level rises so precipitously that no one has a chance to make a dash for higher ground on foot.
Although the Roberts lived to tell the tale, the same can't be said for all the subjects of their home movie. For example, the camera captures their utter dismay two weeks after the hurricane passed, when they enter the house of Kim's uncle, who had been interviewed earlier, only to find his decomposing corpse lying in the living room. Other horror stories follow, such as the sight of an acquaintance's aging mother whose body had been left behind with dozens of other patients in a hospital turned morgue.
Equally-effectively chronicled is the constant frustration the couple encountered in dealing with FEMA bureaucrats who had the nerve to ask for documents obviously washed away. No wonder so many of the victims ended up broke, depressed, unemployed and no longer able to trust their own government.
There's a telling scene towards the end of the picture, featuring a displaced woman counseling her son who wants to enter the military. "You're not going to fight for a country that doesn't give a damn about you," she declares matter-of-factly. "No way!" Raw, unfiltered and expletive-laced, but a brutally-honest reminder of what life has been like for the least fortunate victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 96 minutes
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
DVD Extras: Deleted and extended scenes, conversations with the directors, subjects, film critic Richard Roeper and producer Danny Glover, coverage of the film at the Democratic National Convention, and the theatrical trailer.