A Drowning Nation: An interview with Trouble the Water directors

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 By John Esther

Trouble the Water [trailer] looks deep and hard at America before, during and after Hurricane Katrina led to the flooding of New Orleans and, in particular, the Bush Administration's typical gross incompetence in responding to the catastrophes.

Directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary category this past year. "Save for some righteous indignation at the close," wrote Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, "Trouble the Water makes its points without didacticism. [The film] ebbs and flows like great drama."

A producer who has worked with Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11), Martin Scorsese, Bob Dylan and others, Trouble the Water is Lessin's feature debut. A co-producer on Fahrenheit 9/11, Deal's other credits include being an archivist for Bowling for Columbine, God Grew Tired of Us and Murderball. The film premieres on HBO Thursday, April 23, before making its debut on DVD this summer from Zeitgeist Films.

In this exclusive interview, Joihn Esther spoke to Deal and Lessin about Trouble the Water.

What compelled you to make this film initially?

Tia Lessin: We wanted to do something in the aftermath of Katrina. We were stunned and outraged by the failures of our government. Like so many others, we decided to channel that into action.

What was your experience like with the people of that area while making the documentary, when the cameras were not rolling?

Carl Deal: Being in the cities and on the highways of the Southern United States in September of 2005 was unbelievably sad. Everywhere you turned, it seems, there were people displaced by the flooding, and everyone had essential needs to meet. Did people ask us for money? Sure. Did we give anybody money? Sometimes. But what we really were there to contribute was our presence as filmmakers, to listen and learn, to get the story right, and to try to be true to the voices and experiences of others that were very different from our own.

How did you negotiate between being objective and helping out these people (beyond telling their stories).

TL: First of all, we aren't objective. Is it even possible to be objective? I don't think so. Everything we do is informed by our experiences, our ways of seeing the world, and our beliefs. The best we can do is be true to what we are experiencing and acknowledge that we are part of what is unfolding.

What can viewers see in the cable and DVD releases they did not see in the theatrical release?

CD: The DVD will feature some deleted scenes and exclusive footage that will hopefully give some insights into our process as filmmakers, as well as additional context for the story.

Did your political intentions change during the course of the film?

TL: The failures of government during and after Katrina created an opportunity for dialogue about race, about poverty, about issues that haunt America to this day. So when we set out for Louisiana, our goal was to tell a dramatic and deeply personal story that would help deepen that dialogue. These intentions haven't changed.

CD: We hope audiences will become more connected to the struggles of people along the Gulf Coast and in their own communities after watching Trouble the Water. Maybe even change the way they think about themselves and others?

How did your collaborations with Michael Moore influence your narrative?

CD: Producing for Michael Moore taught us to find the humor in otherwise humorless situations, to be guided by our passion, and to always remember the larger context. And while Trouble the Water is made in a different style than Michael's films, you might spot some homage to his work in it.

How did the narrative change during production?

TL: Our vision for the film changed organically as the story continued to unfold in real time. We always tried to be impacted by what was going on in the moment, not just by what was in our heads. We had begun by documenting the return of Louisiana National Guard soldiers from Baghdad to nearby Fort Polk in Katrina's aftermath. We wanted to make the connection between the Gulf War and the Gulf Coast. That storyline became secondary after we spent some time on the ground.

CD: For a time, Trouble the Water was going to be more of a gumbo. We shot over 160 hours of footage over two years -- interviewed the "experts," followed several soldiers, and several other Katrina survivors, and screened a hundred more hours of archival material. And while all that certainly informed the story we told, the deeper we got into the edit, the more we felt compelled to keep it small, keep it personal, and focus on the journey of Kimberly and Scott Roberts.

How did making this film change your perceptions about race in America?

CD: We've become more aware of how few white Americans really want to engage in a meaningful dialogue about race.

TL: We feel like we've all emerged from very dark times and we are hopeful for the first time in a very long time.

CD: From the first family-elect's appearance at Grant Park in Chicago, all the way through the inauguration, didn't everyone breathe a little easier? Hearing Rev. Joseph Lowery's call for unity at the benediction with a riff on the anti-racist blues tune by Big Bill Broonzy is a moment that should have left all Americans proud and smiling.

Was the Katrina catastrophe more about race or class?

TL: It's about both. It's difficult to separate racial and economic injustice in a society where people of color are much more likely than white people to live in poverty, with limited social services, and fewer meaningful opportunities for economic development.

Did making the documentary change your perceptions of the Bush administration?

CD: While Americans are up in arms these days about the AIG executive bonuses, lets not forget that tens of billions of dollars in fraud was perpetrated by the same corrupt contractors that fed at the Bush-trough in Iraq. If anything, Katrina revealed the Bush Administration to be more corrupt and more incompetent than we had ever imagined.

TL: And remember -- not only did the Bush Administration fail miserably in its response to the disaster, it had failed the people of the Gulf Coast long before, which made so many residents more vulnerable to extreme weather and failed levees.

How are Kimberly and Scott today?

TL: They're doing great. The Times Picayune recently published a story about them and how this film has changed their lives.

What was your immediate reaction after being nominated for an Academy Award? Has it altered your careers?

TL: We were ecstatic! Truly ecstatic. And deeply honored. What a week that was. We began it in Atlanta screening Trouble the Water at the King Center as part of the celebration of Dr. King's life and legacy. A few days later, the Bushes moved out of the White House and the Obamas moved in. And then the film was nominated. Wow!

CD: We hope the increased exposure for the film that the nomination brought has translated into more support for Gulf Coast recovery. And, of course, we hope the nomination will help us get support to make other films.

Of course we were disappointed that our film didn't win, but Man on Wire is a great doc and we're very happy for James Marsh and his team.

Could you name some of your favorite documentaries?

CD: Where do we begin? Fifteen years ago we saw Jennie Livingston's fabulous Paris is Burning, the first of many date nights at the movies. Barbara Kopple's magnificent Harlan County, USA is a touchstone for us both, as is the essential Eyes on the Prize. And Roger & Me was a revelation - a documentary that was poignant and funny, and totally honest.

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