Thursday, August 21, 2008

Muddy the Waters

Directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal do not like Pres. Bush, not one little bit. You could probably guess that from their credits as producers of among other films, Fahrenheit 9/11, but in their latest documentary they go out of their way to remind viewers of their low esteem every ten or fifteen minutes, or so. It is unfortunate because it undermines the power and effectiveness of the survivor stories recorded in Trouble the Water (trailer here), opening in New York tomorrow.

Evidently when tragedy strikes, Lessin and Deal’s first instinct is to grab their cameras and start filming, so that is what they did after Katrina lashed through the Gulf Coast. They were not getting much material until they met Kimberley and Scott Roberts, who filmed much of their ordeal during the storm with their recently purchased camcorder.

What the Scotts captured on film was abject chaos. No one in authority showed any leadership, or even had a clue. Perhaps some of the most infuriating footage involves tapes of terrified people calling 9-11 only to be told the NOLA PD were not accepting emergency calls at the time. Unfortunately, Lessin and Deal then disingenuously cut to footage of Pres. Bush. (Had they consulted a high school civics textbook, they would have read that America has a federal system of government, not a unitary one. The local NOLA authorities did not in fact report to the President but to a Democrat mayor, who would later be re-elected.)

This pattern becomes so blatant it distracts from the human drama faced by the Scotts and their family and friends. Was FEMA awful during Katrina? Lord, yes. (Has FEMA ever been praised for their timely response?) Yet many of the faults laid at the feet of Pres. Bush are just as much a function of dysfunctional local governments. For instance, complaints were made of the slowness of Federal money disbursed for home rebuilding efforts. However, the state coordination of those Federal disbursements was outsourced by then Gov. Blanco to a Virginia consulting firm, ICF, in one of the more controversial provisions of her Road Home program. Many speculate the administration of the Road Home, or lack there of, was the deciding factor in her decision not to seek re-election. However, Blanco is a Democrat, so fuller context would not help the narrative Lessin and Deal are spinning.

The Scotts and their friends and family pulled together and survived, but they did lose people close to them. Yet for various reasons they came back to New Orleans, despite finding what appeared to be welcome refuge in Memphis. The spirit and culture of the Crescent City seems to have an enduring hold on its citizens, but there is little sense of the city’s exceptionalism in Trouble. Kimberley Scott is a fairly talented rapper, so her music is logically heard periodically during the film, but aside from a licensed Dr. John rendition of “Wade in the Water,” we hear very little readily identifiable NOLA music in Trouble until late in the film when Free Agents Brass Band play at a protest outside the mayor’s office.

To their credit, Lessin and Deal do not insert themselves into the narrative. However, their treatment of an innocent New Orleans tourism official follows the Michael Moore tactic of targeting average Joe’s for ridicule as surrogates for their larger bogeymen. Are the filmmakers really interested in New Orleans or is it just a handy vehicle to try to score partisan points? One has to wonder watching Trouble. I have talked to many Katrina survivors who had harrowing stories to tell. When you talk about Katrina, it should be about them, not your personal feelings about Iraq. They and the Scotts deserve better than Trouble.