Saturday, September 20, 2008

And the Oscar for Documentary Goes to...

Once in a while in life, for whatever reason, you get to be at "the spot." You know what I mean: "the place to be," where something so extraordinary occurs that you walk away knowing you've been touched by The Force. Last night, the spot was in a Canal Place theater auditorium in New Orleans and I was there, along with Danny Glover (one of the executive producers of the film being shown), Carl Deal (the director of said film), and two bonafide heroes and stars, Kimberly Rivers and Scott Roberts (seen above with Rivers holding up the photo of her deceased mother, a photo miraculously spared by the floods after Katrina). The film? Trouble the Water. It already won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at Sundance, among other awards. And if it's not about to open in your city in the next month or so, you might want to make it a point to approach your local theater post haste with enough information to change that. This is the real deal.

The story opens with Kimberly trying out her brand new Sony movie cam in the hours before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. She and Scott were living in the lower 9th Ward at that time and as she talks to the neighborhood children about who's going and who has to stay for lack of money, the audience, of course, already knows what's about to happen and views the bright young faces through the window of that knowledge.

Through the next few weeks, Kim Rivers continued to film the incredible story of survival from inside the skin of the survivors. You're with them up very close and personal when the water begins to rise, forcing them into the attic ("I can't reach it...Gimme your foot..."). You hear the stark reports of dwindling supplies. And in seamless continuity, Deal and his technical crew intersperse other film and audio clips. You see the devastation from the air. You hear the voice of a woman telling a 911 operator she isn't strong enough to break through the ceiling in her attic and she's going to drown. She isn't screaming. She's just telling someone. You hear a young Black man's voice talking to another operator, dropping into sadness with lost hope as she tells him with unemotional finality that no one -- no one -- is coming.

I've seen some hellified thrillers in my day, but it would be very difficult for a fictional presentation to reach the level of tension Rivers, Deal and the film editors produced with Trouble the Water. You watch a Black man named Larry in water almost to his shoulders making trip after trip to move others to higher ground ("I'll take two at a time," he shouts up at the folks in the window. "Bring me two at a time.") and you have no way of knowing whether he's going to go under in the next frame. You see Scott somehow -- incredibly -- maintaining his patience and his dignity while trying to negotiate a space to spend even one night out of the ruins in an abandoned naval station the military was ordered to keep the weary citizens from entering.

"How about just the women and children?" Scott says without a shred of the rage in his voice that anyone in the audience would surely have understood.

"Get off this property or we'll shoot," the soldier barks at gunpoint. You could almost feel the theater audience recoil.

A fading clip shows a weakened survivor scooting across a bridge on an office chair with wheels, pushing along with one foot as if this is the most natural thing in the world to be doing. The unfolding weeks of struggle, of relocation, of returning give not the least relief of tension to either the viewer or those being viewed. The dance with FEMA is punctuated by an understated, but stunning series of silent faces looking dead into the camera without blinking, waiting for anything to happen.

Then, completely unexpectedly, in Memphis, where the couple had escaped for a time, Kim hears her cousin thumping a CD she had made in New Orleans and thought she'd never see again. Without introduction, she jumps off into a rap that produced a spontaneous burst of applause in the theater. Not only is she really, really good, I mean seriously talented, but the story of her life as she tells it in the rap she titled "Amazing" is...well...amazing.* And the viewer is forced to realize, gasping, that these people have been surviving one Katrina or another all their lives. With all that talent. With all that strength of personhood and determination and the solidarity and kindness and respect they had evidenced before the cameras for weeks under the most mind-numbing duress -- they've been hanging by their thumbs year after year after year while the rest of the population sails blithely by, acting as if they don't exist.

Later, on the way home, the woman I was with said she was disappointed that BlackKoldMadina (the name Kim uses as a rapper) isn't a star now. Apparently, my friend wanted to see Kim and Scott living large with the rich and famous by the end of the movie, above the pain of their former lives and the terrible ordeal they somehow survived.

"But she is a star," I countered.

I mean, sometimes, being a star is having the courage to lift a camera at a time when most people would be too panic-stricken to move. Sometimes, being a star is walking through hell and still finding the strength to call yourself "Amazing." Sometimes, being a star is having a husband whose face absolutely radiates his pride when he looks in your direction. Sometimes, being a star is pushing your baby down the aisle in a theater while your hometown stands to its feet. We should all be so lucky.

*If you doubt my judgment on the matter of BlackKoldMadina's talent, I invite you to visit Born Hustler Records to find out for yourself. "Amazing" doesn't come across quite as strongly on that site, in my opinion, as it does in the film and on the cd. Still, there's no doubt about her talent and I'm very glad I bought the cd last night, unashamedly asking for an autograph while Sky, Scott and Kim's new baby girl, sitting in her stroller at my feet, played with the cuff of my brightly colored sleeve.

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