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Interview with Carl Deal and Tia Lessin

HBO

There were many harrowing images and stories that emerged in the aftermath of Katrina. What were you looking to bring to this story that was different?

When we arrived in Louisiana a week after the levees failed, we wanted to tell a different story. We didn't want to deliver information, but instead take an audience on an emotional journey.

Carl Deal and Tia Lessin

Like most people who were watching the events on television, we were struggling to make sense of what we were seeing. 100,000 people abandoned in their own city after the levees broke, waiting for a rescue that wasn't coming. It was appalling. If the news media could get their trucks into New Orleans the day after Katrina, why couldn't FEMA?

Many journalists were asking those questions and challenging the Bush Administration in ways we hadn't seen from the mainstream media in the previous five years. But there were also those exaggerated and false reports of widespread looting and murderous mobs roaming the streets of New Orleans, reports which seemed to run on a continuous loop on some networks. The reality on the ground was far from that.

When we arrived in Louisiana a week after the levees failed, we wanted to tell a different story. We didn't want to deliver information, but instead take an audience on an emotional journey. Kimberly and Scott Roberts' story of survival gave us a window in, an opportunity to add to the conversation about race and poverty that had been forced into the national dialogue.

And by incorporating fifteen minutes of the heart-stopping direct first-hand home video shot by Kimberly the day before and the day of the storm, we were able to ground the story with jarring, unforgettable images unlike anything the news media was showing at the time.

But Trouble the Water doesn't begin and end with the breached levees, the botched evacuation, and government's inept response. We followed this story for two years after the national media left the region, and so were able to tell a much deeper and intensely personal story.

HBO

Where did you meet your subjects, Kimberly and Scott, and what was it about them that captured your attention?

Carl Deal and Tia Lessin

Kimberly and Scott Roberts approached us about ten days after the levees failed. We were all in Central Louisiana at a Red Cross Shelter. They were just at the beginning of their post-Katrina journey, and we had just been shut down by the military after filming several days with Louisiana National Guard soldiers returning home from Baghdad.

The Roberts and their friend Brian thoroughly defied the stereotypes we were seeing on TV at that time - the depictions of New Orleans' African American residents as either rampaging criminals or helpless victims. While victimized by a ferocious storm and an incompetent, if not indifferent, government response, Kimberly and Scott never acted like victims. And though they were self-described street hustlers, they were not criminals either. They were straight up survivors who were there when their neighbors needed them, and they were embarking on a journey to transform their lives. They expressed a lot of hope and optimism, emotions that often seemed at odds with what was happening on the ground. We wanted to see how it would turn out for them, and felt that an audience would too.

We filmed with them on and off for two years. Kimberly and Scott were honest in the way they exposed themselves to us, asking only that in making the film, we keep it real and not sanitize the story. And by sticking close to their journey, we were able to distill so much into one story -- the abandonment of the city's poorest, the incarcerated, and the hospitalized to Katrina's floodwaters, and the government's failures well before, during and after the storm.

HBO

It's clear to all in the aftermath of Katrina that the government failed its citizens. What were the key events that occurred during filming that brought that home for you both?

We had arrived in the disaster zone with our crew looking for answers: Why were a hundred thousand poor resident stranded in New Orleans before the storm? And why was help so late in coming after the levees collapsed?

Carl Deal and Tia Lessin

We had arrived in the disaster zone with our crew looking for answers: Why were a hundred thousand poor residents stranded in New Orleans before the storm? And why was help so late in coming after the levees collapsed? "We've got a job to defend this country in the war on terror," President Bush had told the nation, "and we've got a job to bring aid and comfort to the people of the Gulf Coast, and we'll do both."

Well, clearly, Bush did not do both. In fact, most of the Louisiana National Guard was in Baghdad when Katrina made landfall and it was ten days before many of them were allowed to return home. We were there when those soldiers finally arrived and we filmed those bittersweet homecomings. Until we were shut down. "Fahrenheit 9/11 screwed it up for all you guys," said an officer, apparently not knowing that she was addressing two of that film's producers.

Later that week we found ourselves standing in the shadow of the enormous U.S. Naval station in the 9th Ward. Scott recounted how, after the levees broke, he and hundreds of other residents who were seeking shelter in the empty barracks there were turned away at gunpoint by soldiers. A couple of days earlier in New Orleans, a soldier whose brigade had recently taken up residence at Kimberly and Scott's former high school remarked, "No offense against civilian people, but they have no concept of how to survive." These two scenes underscored for us the massive gulf between the authorities and the people they are supposed to serve.

Then there were the 911 calls. We had unearthed hours of them, recorded during the first days of the flooding. Listening to them was almost unbearable. One elderly woman stranded in her attic pleads for help, with floodwaters rising in her house and the operator can only suggest that she break a hole in her attic. It's devastating. The woman quietly replies, "So I'm gonna die." Our collaborator and editor Woody Richman set an audio montage of these calls to images shot from the Roberts' attic, with a chilling result: The old woman's voice conjures the nearly two thousand people who lost their lives in New Orleans after the levees failed.

And each return visit to New Orleans over the past three years brings it home all over again. One afternoon we filmed at a public housing complex that was boarded up and surrounded by a chain link fence -- hundreds of vacant apartments in an area that hadn't even flooded. A few blocks away, hundreds of homeless people were sleeping under the interstate. By our next visit, this livable housing had been demolished. But the homeless were still there.

It's important to remember that the government failures began long before the levees broke. We recently learned that the high school we had filmed in during the aftermath of Katrina - the high school that Kimberly and Scott attended -- has the worst academic record in the state. It's been part of the city's "Recovery School District" since 1991; but its "recovery" is not from Katrina, but from white flight and decades of underfunding and neglect. That speaks volumes.

HBO

The concepts of rebuilding and overcoming disaster become metaphors in the film for both the city of New Orleans and for Kimberly and Scott. One of the most arresting instances of this is when Kimberly sings a rap song directly into camera which reveals so much about her and her past. What was it like capturing that moment?

Carl Deal and Tia Lessin

It was a truly magical moment in Memphis when Kimberly, aka Blackkoldmadina, discovers the music she thought was lost in the flood. Her spontaneous performance of the autobiographical song, "Amazing" reveals her talent as a rapper in a performance that Rolling Stone magazine says has her "destined for stardom." She delivers an explosive and vivid personal narrative of how she survived a childhood surrounded by poverty, violence and neglect. It's the ultimate self-affirmation as she defiantly raps, "I don't need YOU to tell me that I'm amazing."

We were just speechless as we captured the scene and Kimberly's interaction with cinematographer PJ Raval and his camera is riveting and emotional. We hope it leaves the audience as breathless and inspired as we felt in that moment.

HBO

What kind of reactions have you gotten from Katrina survivors?

Carl Deal and Tia Lessin

Every time we screen the film in person, we're approached by survivors - poor and affluent, white and black -- who tell us the ways in which the film speaks to them. And we receive emails almost daily from survivors sharing their stories and their responses to the film.

You can read some of the personal stories that survivors have sent us on our website.

Organizations on the forefront of advocating for Katrina survivors, such as The Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, UNITY New Orleans, PolicyLink, Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, Amnesty International and many others are using Trouble the Water as an organizing tool.

But Trouble the Water is not just about Katrina, it's a triumphant story about navigating through hard times, through storms big and small, natural and man-made, and these are hard times for so many right now, not only along the Gulf Coast but throughout the country. We think that's why the film will resonate with millions more when they see it on HBO.

HBO

What can citizens do in response to the issues raised in the film?

Carl Deal and Tia Lessin

**Tell Congress to take action to repair the communities that were destroyed. This problem is bigger than just Hurricane Katrina, so we need real legislative action to make a difference.

**Share your story about why the gulf coast matters to you and how "Trouble the Water" touched you.

**Find an organization to support along the Gulf Coast or in your own community.

** Host a screening of Trouble the Water for your faith group, school, or community group: and discuss the issues afterwards and make the connections between the needs along the Gulf Coast and in your own community.

Trouble the Water