Saturday, January 24, 2009

Film Review: TROUBLE THE WATER (2008, "Carl Deal & Tia Lessin")

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 90 minutes.
Tag-line: "It's not about a hurricane. It's about America."
Awards: Nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary, Jury Award Full Frame Documentary Festival, Best Documentary at Gotham Awards, Honorable Mention at the Silverdocs Festival, and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE is basically the definitive Katrina documentary, a film as devastating as it is epic. TROUBLE THE WATER's scope is much smaller- we follow Kimberly Roberts and her husband Scott (and some people they pick up along the way) as they survive the storm, attempt to receive FEMA funds, and try to forge a post-Katrina future. It's in turns tragic (we see the ease with which they become accustomed, even blase, to discovering corpses) and darkly hilarious (the tourism PR girl who dances along with an offensive video while saying people don't want to hear about the destroyed 80%, they want to hear about the unscathed 20!). We see bewildered FEMA crony Michael Brown fumbling on TV as, literally, an ocean rises on their neighborhood street. The most cutting moments are some of the simplest- audio recordings of 911 calls where the dispatchers tell the drowning and dying that no aid will be sent; or Kimberly's brother describing survival in a prison abandoned by guards. Kimberly's footage is raw, matter-of-fact, and representative of a growing media alternative. She is the auteur of this picture. Tia Lessin and Carl Deal just meet up with them along the way, bringing nothing to the table except poor choices in music (banal "be sad now" music, forms of which are used in almost every Sundance doc), public domain news footage, and the holiest god of American indie film: contacts for distribution. But make no mistake, for better or worse, this is Kimberly's film, a depiction of her life and worldview. Also, Kimberly and Scott's relationship is largely unexplored (one of her songs refers to slicing his face with a razor at 16, from which he has a nasty scar, then him giving her a wedding ring just a few years later). If Deal and Lessin were worth their salt at all, they would have at least followed up on intriguing nuances like that! Herzog would've. Instead, it seems that they stumbled upon Kimberly and her footage at the right time and place...I mean, come on, at least give her co-director credit.

-Sean Gill

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