MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Bridging the Cultural Gulf with Trouble the Water

When is a movie more than a movie?

One of the things that particularly interests me about independent film is the way in which movies can both shine a light on social issues and act as agents of change in shifting the way in which those who watch a given film view the world around them.

Which is not to say that I’m necessarily a fan of the “activism” documentary — films that explicitly set out to call viewers to some type of activism — but I do appreciate artistically made films that, by the nature of their subjects, inform, inspire and even incite those who see them to view something they thought they already understood in a different way. Trouble the Water, one of the films nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary, is one such film.

I first saw the film at Sundance last year, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for documentary, and it was one of my favorite films of that year’s fest. As I walked to the shuttle stop after the film, I was behind two obviously well-off, white couples (the women were both wearing ankle-length fur coats and were glittering with diamonds), and overheard a conversation that’s stayed with me for over a year.

One woman said to her husband that she didn’t like “those black people” the film focused on, and wondered why the filmmakers had chosen to focus on Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband, Scott; the husband of the other woman offered that he felt that Lessin and Deal, who are white, had exploited their black subjects to make a film with a liberal political slant. And I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, is that really all these people got out of the film we just saw?”

I told this story to Lessin and Deal as we were chatting on the phone more generally about documentary films as agents of social change, and Lessin countered with a more positive Sundance story about an equally fur-clad woman who approached her after that same screening and told her that five minutes into the film, she’d hated it and wanted to leave because she didn’t like Kimberly and Scott. The woman, Lessin says, told her that Kimberly and Scott were the kind of people that, “if she saw them walking down the sidewalk, she’d cross the street to avoid them.”

The woman stuck out the screening because the film had just won the Grand Jury prize and because she was in the middle of a row and leaving would have been awkward and disruptive. And by the end of the film, her entire perspective of who Kimberly and Scott were as people had changed.

Deal notes that while Trouble the Water is an inspiring film and people come out of screenings with a certain energy and excitement, not everyone responds to it positively. “It also makes the people sitting there squirm in their seats, it makes them uncomfortable. We’re dealing with issues around race and racism that a lot of people don’t want to think about or deal with,” he offers.

Lessin chimes in to point me to an interview with Kimberly Roberts by Popcorn Reel’s Omar P.L. Moore in which Roberts said, “I’ve been encouraged to get into politics, to get into leadership in our city because … this movie helped me see the beautiful person that I was and the people around me encouraging me and kind of telling me that I can be that, inspiring me to want to do that. So I feel confident that I can. And I probably will do it.”

Lessin adds that while Trouble the Water can be inspiring to some audience members, it’s equally important to the filmmakers that it was inspiring to its subject. “The film transformed her. She’d never seen herself like that, she hadn’t seen herself the way she was depicted in the film. She’d internalized a lot of negative things about herself.”

Lessin talks about a scene toward the end of the film where Roberts is talking to some older women from her community who are thanking her for the leadership she showed, for comforting them, singing to them, helping them get through the hurricane. “You can see the surprise on her face when she says, ‘I didn’t know you saw me that way’ — I don’t think she changed as much as people around her saw her in a different way,” Lessin says.

“I think what’s important is when she says she sees the person that she was,” Deal adds. “They started to see themselves from a different perspective, and became engaged in their community in a diferent way than ever before.” Lessin emphasizes this point, noting that when she and Deal met Kimberly and Scott, the couple was in the process of leaving their community, going to a different place and seeing things in a different way for the first time. “In their case, with a couple of exceptions, they’d never been out of their community. They were young, and very open to the world around them. She talks at the end about seeing the world in a different way. Hopefully this film can bridge some of the gulf that’s out there.”

The film, Lessin and Deal say, has also inspired other young women and men who come from backgrounds similar to Kimberly and Scott’s to see other possibilities in their own lives. “Kimberly has also had young women saying to her, ‘you’re me,'” Lessin says. “People feeling validated by Kimberly’s story on the big screen is the other side of the issue, and it’s one of the reasons Danny Glover got involved in this film — he saw Scott’s story and it reminded him of his little brother; he thought it would be a beacon of hope to other young men in the community.”

While they always knew they wanted to tell a more personal story than what they were seeing on news footage of the hurricane’s aftermath, it was meeting Kimberly and Scott that shifted what the film would be about, though Lessin and Deal didn’t know that at first. Says Deal, “I wish I could tell you that we all met and it was love at first sight, but there were a lot of things happening, there were thousands of people in Alexandria who’d come up from the storm. But I think we see it in the opening shot of the film that they kind of had an edge to them, and a tremendous optimism, and they were very compelling people. We’ve spent a lot of time with them over the past couple years, building a relationship.”

Lessin jokingly adds, “We weren’t that prescient, we didn’t know right away that that was the story. We shot them, we shot other stories, and we got back to the editing room and their story just kind of rose to the top. The heart of any good story is the characters and the journey they’re on, and they were on that journey. As we continued to edit, we distilled it.”

As for any talk that Trouble the Water is a film about white filmmakers exploiting hurricane footage shot by a poor black woman, Lessin and Deal note that they’d shot most of the film before they even saw any of Roberts’ home camera footage. “The home footage she shot is astounding, it allows us to be in the hurricane and see that, but that’s not the whole story,” Deal says. “It’s really about Kimberly and Scott, and their courage and their honesty about what’s going on. That aspect really, as much as the footage, kind of grounded us in the story.”

Lessin notes they were not unaware of being white filmmakers shooting this film. “We have a history, and there is a context of white people appropriating African-American cultural stories, and we worked very hard not to make that film, not to have that context.” In fact, Deal and Lessin note, when they were working on getting the film made, they found little enthusiasm for their project because the focus of the film was on a poor black couple; they were told there would be more interest in the film if they found white subjects on whom to focus. “I’d walk away thinking, ‘Did you really just say that?” Lessin says.

For Lessin and Deal, changing their focus was never an option. “We’re all on a mission with this film,” says Lessin seriously. “We might be white people, and we might live in New York, but this issue affects us, and I’m sick and tired of white people feeling like these issues of racial disparity and poverty don’t affect them — they’re important issues.”

The whole issue of white filmmakers making a film about poor black people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is, in a way, reflective of the very issues of racial and economic divide Lessin and Deal sought to address through their film. I asked Deal to elaborate on something he said when the filmmakers were interviewed by David Poland for a DP/30 video — that people like himself and Tia and Kimberly and Scott are not supposed to “hang out.”

Deal offers, “We were white middle class filmmakers living in New York, they were poor black people living in New Orleans. Our worlds are not supposed to intersect. This story has brought us all together in a way that I feel is subversive.”

Now Kimberly and Scott, who both have a past history of drug problems, are working to form a non-profit organization in New Orleans that will provide much-needed detox beds for addicts without medical insurance — and Lessin and Deal will serve on the board, as the filmmakers and their subjects continue to work together to bridge racial and economic divides in a city still rebuilding from the devastating storm.

And on Oscar night, Kimberly and Scott Roberts will be sitting with Lessin and Deal at the Kodak Theater as they wait together to see if their film goes home with the a golden statue. But their friendship won’t end after the winner’s announced; the filmmakers and their subjects have forged a relationship that runs much deeper now.

“We’re not just friends, we’re family now,” Lessin says, emotion wavering her voice. “When Carl had his kidney stone attack — and we have a very wide circle of family and friends — the only care package we got was from Kimberly and Scott … they’re family.”

– by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon