When documentarians address a plight that hasn’t directly affected them, the questions looming boil down to ones of authenticity: How to work with subjects without condescending to them? How to climb inside the topic without invading ethical and personal boundaries? How to adequately capture its specificities when you've not been directly impacted by them?
Hurricane Katrina and its resulting diaspora prove especially touchy subjects, because it reveals the third-world country of poverty living in our own allegedly first-world country, because it reveals once again the fissures existing between white and nonwhite America, and because most of the people who are in a position to make films have experienced some measure of privilege, at least in the form of education and cultural access.
In Axe in the Attic, directors Lucia Small and Ed Pincus dealt with this issue through full-frontal honesty. They put themselves in front of the camera in a sometimes-harrowing anti-hero capacity, owning up to their Northern, liberal, atheist biases while they interviewed various denizens of the Diaspora.
As veterans of Michael Moore crews, filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal were also all too familiar with the school of filmmaker-as-character. They found a new and, to my mind, infinitely preferable approach to Moore’s, though: When they went down to the New Orleans region looking for the best way into the story, that character-filmmaker found them. Then-24-year-old Kimberly Roberts was living in the 9th Ward when Katrina struck, and shot a bevy of footage of her neighborhood before and during the hurricane. When Deal and Lessin met her and her husband Scott, they were living in an evacuation center and were at such loose ends that they had trouble collecting their retribution check because they didn’t have a bank account. As Roger said, “Her film changed all their plans for theirs.” The resulting doc, Trouble the Water, is a medley of all their ingenuity.
Make no mistake. To a large degree, Trouble the Water takes its cues from Kimberly herself, who is filmed by Deal and Lessin once they join forces and she travels to Mississippi to camp out with relatives. Kimberly is big-hearted, rough around the edges, and bewildered before she is enraged. More than anything, she and Scott are dead-set on survival for not only themselves but for all those they meet. So the film never pulls any punches—-diatribes are clear and myriad; governmental and military slights are many and matter-of-factly recorded—-which has the curious result that its genuine subtlety, such as its seamless integration of footage, has for the most part gone unremarked upon. With a film like this, a “message film,”the craftsmanship of the endeavor is largely eclipsed by the tremendous response it stirs.
The truth is that Deal and Lessin don’t seem the types to be cross about this fact, so long as their documentary rouses viewers to support those still living in the diaspora—which it has. The question and answer period after the film’s screening here at Ebertfest seemed a good indication of this fact. Deal, Lessin and Scott and Kimberly Roberts were all in effect but questions were mostly directed toward Kimberly, who answered them all with aplomb, telling the (largely white) Virginia Theater audience that she used to be scared of white people, telling them how angry she felt about the terrible education that poor people receive in this country. She was also brilliantly frank about her initial reasons for shooting the footage—-among them, that “she needed the money.” People need to be more honest about that fact, less shamed. Perhaps less corruption will work itself into the “good fight” if we are more upfront about our needs from the get-go.
Yes, Kimberly was moving, no more so than when she performed two of her rap songs for the audience with a mix tape accompaniment. I held my breath nervously when she first launched into it. As far as live music goes, rap concerts tend to be pretty bad. And I was worried that the audience would watch unmoved and unmoving while awesome Kimberly put herself out there. But I was foolish to worry, especially after witnessing all that Kimberly had survived already. She got out there and seemingly pulled people out of their seats. Standing, clapping, laughing. For a second the Diaspora had climbed all the way to the Virginia and had closed up any gap between us and them, between the observers and the victims. The power of collaboration, that.