Friday, February 5, 2010

Trouble the Water (2008)

One night during the conference I attended, there was a screening of the documentary, Trouble the Water. It was directed by the producers of Fahrenheit 9/11, received a great deal of critical acclaim, was nominated for numerous awards, but had only limited release in the United States. I had never had the chance to watch the film previously, so I attended the conference screening. It was very powerful and well-made.

The film follows the experiences before and after Katrina of a twenty-four year old New Orleans woman, Kimberly Rivers Roberts, as well as her friends and family. She and her husband, Scott, lived in a modest but comfortable house in the Lower Ninth Ward with their large dogs. They didn’t have the means to evacuate ahead of the storm. Just before the storm approached, Kimberly began to shoot footage on her camcorder and to interview those in her neighborhood. She kept shooting footage through out the ordeal of the storm, including their escape with neighbors of varied ages to their attic to avoid drowning in the flood waters in their home. A number of neighbors who survived the storm and flood banded together to try to escape to higher ground. They were on their own. No one from the government or any other group helped them in any way. They had sought refuge at a largely empty military base near-by, but despite their desperate plight they were forced at gun point by the soldiers to leave the base entrance.

The film follows Kimberly and Scott after they eventually escaped New Orleans, and went to stay with relatives in small town Louisiana and then in Memphis. Through their migration, they adamantly vowed before the camera that they would never return to their hometown. However, the eventually had a change of heart. Towards the end of the film, Kimberly and Scott did return to New Orleans. It was just too hard to start over some place new. Scott got a construction job in New Orleans to help with rebuilding efforts.

There are a number of things one could say about this film, but for purposes of this blog, I just want to focus on a couple. First, it is clear in the film how important Kimberly’s faith is to her and how it enabled her to get through Katrina as well as a lot of other ordeals in her young life. (Indeed, the same can be said of many of the people featured in the film.) Before the storm approached, she repeatedly expresses her faith that God is in control of the situation. Through out the storm and the flood, she never lost her cool, she continued to rely on him. When the authorities refused to help them escape, Kimberly and her husband didn’t curse them, but spoke words of love and blessing over them. While being tossed about in an emergency shelter and at the homes of various relatives, Kimberly continued to be a model of calm and faith. She ministered to the elderly ladies at the shelter with her, and helped keep up their spirits through out the insanity of the situation. Through their evacuation journey, Kimberly and Scott somehow adopted a grown man without any apparent family or friends. He was a recovering drug addict who had lived in a church-run group home in New Orleans before the storm. As a result, in the post-Katrina chaos, he had trouble establishing his New Orleans residence and FEMA would not help him. Kimberly ministered to him to keep up his spirits despite the seemingly insurmountable odds against him. Towards the end of the film, Kimberly expressed her simple desire to just get settled permanently and find a church home to put down roots.

Some viewers of the film may gloss over Kimberly’s faith. She is a streetwise woman who has had a tough life, uses a good deal of profanity, and expresses herself artistically via rap music. Her mother did drugs and died of AIDS when she was a child. Her grandmother kept the family together, but Kimberly had to take care of herself a lot of the time. She reveals in the film that she stole as a child and later she sold drugs. Some Christians might discount the sincerity of her professed faith because she has broken the law and curses. Some non-religious folks might discount the importance of her faith and see it as an ancillary matter. To me, I think both would be wrong. I was very touched by the strength of Kimberly’s faith. If I were ever to endure the sorts of crushing obstacles and heartbreak that she has, I hope that my faith would be as steadfast.

Beyond the role of Kimberly’s faith, the importance of family and community is also evident in the film. When they get out of New Orleans, Kimberly, Scott and others are taken in with love by Kimberly’s relatives, who themselves don’t have a lot to offer in terms of material support. The first time Kimberly and Scott return to see what is left of their home in the Lower Ninth Ward, Kimberly becomes thrilled to find a worn picture of her deceased mother despite the fact that the rest of her belongings are ruined. Despite their initial determination to make a better life for themselves elsewhere, months later Kimberly and Scott return to New Orleans for good. Kimberly talks about the comfort of living where she knows people and people care for one another. It is an amazing statement because it is made as she stands outside on her street, which has been demolished by the levee breach. To Kimberly, the familiarity of her community is a lot more important than the fact that the neighborhood is in ruins.

Shortly after Katrina, former First Lady Barbara Bush famously was quoted as saying that so many of the evacuees who ended up in Houston “were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.” I don’t think Mrs. Bush is a cold-hearted person, and I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I write off that comment as an unfortunate, insensitive choice of words. We’ve all been guilty of that at times, but the cameras were rolling when she made this statement so it got a lot more attention. Very honestly, I think many Americans were thinking the same thing. Many people who have never been poor and who have never had prolonged involvement with an “underprivileged” community would likely discount the value of any such community to its inhabitants. As a result, more privileged people might think that it would be a blessing in disguise to be ripped from an impoverished, drug invested community without accessible educational or economic opportunities, and transplanted into a more prosperous community even if everything and everyone is unfamiliar.

Matthew 28:20 (Young’s Literal Translation)

“...I am with you all the days -- till the full end of the age.”

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