'Trouble the Water," a stirring documentary on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, is more than a keenly dramatic look at how this country treats the poor and dispossessed.
It is also a film that was hijacked by its subjects. They saw an opportunity, they took it, and the grand jury prize at Sundance was the result, as well as the Anne Dellinger Grand Jury Award at this year's Full Frame Festival.
New York documentarians Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, longtime associates of Michael Moore, were in Alexandria, La., interviewing people at a Red Cross shelter when Kim Roberts and her husband, Scott, literally walked into the frame.
"I want to tell people what I been through," Kim Roberts says on camera about home video footage she shot in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward as the flood unfolded. "This needs to be worldwide. Nobody's got what I got."
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Which turned out to be true, and no more than half the story.
Roberts' footage, shot with a video camera she had bought on the street for $20 the week before, gives a rare from-the-ground-up look at what it's like to be flooded out of your house. We watch as the waters rise, forcing the Robertses and their family to take precarious refuge in their attic.
Startling as that footage is, it takes up only about 15 minutes of "Trouble the Water." The documentary's greatest asset is not what Roberts shot, but the woman herself.
With her buoyant, naturally dramatic personality, bold, nervy Roberts has the kind of intensely charismatic spirit documentary directors dream about. With her as our guide, "Trouble the Water" looks at the reality of New Orleans from the inside.
The tour starts before the flood, with Roberts showing us a neighborhood of poverty, but revealing the spirit and sense of community of "the world we had before the storm."
"Trouble" really kicks into gear after the flood, when Roberts' experiences and those of her family members and friends expose how things went down. As Danny Glover, one of the film's executive producers, has said, Katrina "did not turn the region into a Third World country. ... It revealed one."
The magnitude of government incompetence and neglect, the way the citizens of New Orleans were simply abandoned, takes their breath away, as it will yours.
We see the despairing looks of residents outside the Superdome, almost literally hung out to dry. We travel with Roberts back to her New Orleans neighborhood, hearing stories along the way of the death of a grandmother in a city hospital and the trials of a brother all but abandoned by authorities in a local prison.
All of this is presented in the context of the war in Iraq, the place that is getting the resources and the National Guard troops that the New Orleans residents desperately need.
"It's like we're un-American, like we lost our citizenship," Kim Roberts laments.
A cousin puts it even more plainly: "If you don't have money, if you don't have status, you don't have the government."