January 15, 2014, “Trouble the Water” Film Screening & Symposium
By Emily Nyren, Intern Alumni and Volunteer
On January 15, 2014, SPOHP hosted renowned documentary filmmaker Tia Lessin for a film screening and symposium related to her award-winning film, “Trouble the Water.” In the afternoon, the UF Center for Women’s Studies held a symposium discussion, and SPOHP held a screening of the documentary that evening. In the film, Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott document the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina with their own original footage, as well as their struggle to recover in the following months.
Panel Event: Tia Lessin with Prof. Sharon Austin, Prof. Barbara Mennel, Prof. Churchill Roberts, and Prof. Judith Page in Ustler Hall
Panelists included the following UF faculty: Professor Sharon Wright Austin, Director of the African American Studies program and professor of political science, Professor and film scholar Barbara Mennel from the English Department, and Professor Churchill Roberts of the College of Journalism. Professor Judith W. Page, the Director of UF’s Center for Women’s Studies, moderated the panel. During the discussion, Dr. Austin described New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina. Before the storm: the city had the highest rate of childhood poverty and was the murder capital of the United States.
Background: Hurricane Katrina
Despite knowing this, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and other members of New Orleans local government did not provide public transportation for those without vehicles or the money needed to evacuate. The Ninth Ward, the neighborhood where the film’s heroes emerge, is the poorest section of New Orleans and subsequently, the recipient of the least amount of aid.In the film, Kimberly Rivers makes note of the lack of transportation and says, “If I had wheels I’d be gone too. I’m not leaving because I can’t afford it.” According to Dr. Austin, New Orleans’s political problems can be explained by the lack of a cohesive political regime. Because the mayor did not have a good relationship with other city leaders, political infighting occurred, causing miscommunication and lack of effective action.
As discussed during the panel by Barbara Mennel, “Trouble the Water” exposes the blatant contrast between on-the-ground footage like Kimberly’s and the biased media coverage. According to Mennel, the film documents the socioeconomic inequality faced by residents of the Ninth Ward while also displaying the forms of resistance used to expose the political power structure of the local and federal government. Kimberly’s neighbors looked to her for community and strength in a neighborhood that was already accustomed to waiting for help and change. At the end of the symposium, Lessin describes her purpose for traveling to Louisiana ten days after the storm. Wanting to know why the aid was so late, Lessin traveled to Alexandria, LA to film the return of Louisiana National Guardsmen from Baghdad. While there, Kimberly found Lessin’s camera crew and the two struck up a partnership that led to the creation of the film.
Screening Presentation: “Trouble the Water” with Tia Lessin in Pugh Hall
Justin Hosbey, a graduate coordinator for SPOHP’s African American History Project and a third year doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at UF, introduced Lessin to the audience. Hosbey’s doctoral research focuses on post-Katrina New Orleans and the social consequences of the privatization of public schools and prisons. Many members of the audience showed agreement for Hosbey’s claim that calling Katrina a “natural disaster” is a misnomer because the human response to the hurricane is more responsible for the disastrous effects. Hosbey’s claim is proven after watching the film because it takes you through the many steps taken by Kimberly, Scott and their new friend Brian as they attempt to carve out a new life without help from anyone in power.
One of the most shocking aspects of the film was the blatant lack of response by the federal government and FEMA to the crisis. After the storm, President George W. Bush claimed that the U.S. could simultaneously defend the country via the War on Terror while also aiding victims of Hurricane Katrina. Evident in the film was the lack of help from the National Guard as it took days for them to arrive from far-away states like Oregon. 6,000 of Louisiana’s National Guard, including their high-water vehicles, were serving in Baghdad during Hurricane Katrina. This information caused vocal disbelief from the audience during the film. If the federal government had not sent the vast majority of Louisiana’s Guardsmen overseas, the citizens of New Orleans would have undoubtedly received more expedient help in the immediate hours after the storm instead of enduring 100 hours without food or water.
During the Q/A, Lessin explained the formatting of the film. Lessin wanted to mirror the way that PTSD occurs by continuously returning to the location of the disaster. Her method inspired deep empathy from the audience as well as outrage that so little help was provided for vulnerable groups, including the poor, elderly, and hospitalized.
“Trouble the Water” illustrates the concern of New Orleans’ economic and political leaders for increasing tourism rather than rebuilding neighborhoods and communities that still need aid, almost ten years later. While certainly not the first or last time that a local and federal government has acted with the interests of the powerful and wealthy in mind, the situation of Katrina is particularly upsetting. At the end of the film, one and a half years after the storm, Kimberly says, “Here in New Orleans its like they’re preparing people for prison.”
The response to Hurricane Katrina, as depicted in “Trouble the Water,” is both an instructional how-to for governments that wish to perpetuate inequality for its citizens as well as an inspiring story of perseverance and mutual-aid for those like Kimberly and Scott who did not give up.
The “Trouble the Water” symposium and film screening was free and open to the public, organized by the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program and co-sponsored by the Center for Humanities and the Public Sphere Rothman Endowment, African American Studies Program, UF Center for Women’s Studies, UF Smathers Libraries, Bob Graham Center for Public Service, Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations and College of Journalism and Communications, Pleasant Plain United Methodist Church and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.