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?
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.
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?
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.
What kind of reactions have you gotten from Katrina survivors?
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.
What can citizens do in response to the issues raised in the film?
**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.