Monday, September 8, 2008

Trouble the Water

When Hurricane Katrina submerged much of New Orleans in August 2005, I had just finished reading José Saramago's celebrated novel Blindness, a book that seemed to me eerily prophetic of the increasingly horrific occurrences that were then unfolding along the Gulf Coast. In Saramago's novel, an entire population is suddenly struck blind and then confined by military force to an abandoned mental asylum. Within the asylum, a group of criminally minded inmates, taking advantage of official indifference to the plight of the detainees, assumes de facto control of the facilities and makes increasingly oppressive demands on their fellow prisoners. As the hurricane victims were shuttled off to New Orleans' Superdome for shelter, a similarly grotesque spectacle began to play out on the nation's television screens. Everything was as it was in Saramago: reports began to roll in of armed aggression, rape, the hoarding of supplies and, it seemed, it was all made possible due to the authorities' preoccupation with containing the "undesirable" victims rather than offering them any real assistance. The only thing missing from Blindness was the segregation along racial lines.

Three years later, art and life again intersect though not in such explicit fashion. As Katrina's third anniversary comes and goes, a new threat to New Orleans materializes, necessitating another evacuation of the city. Gustav proves to be a minor burden for Gulf Coasters, nothing like its ruinous predecessor, but it serves as another reminder of the vulnerability of an already devastated city. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, posters for Fernando Meirelles' film version of Blindness begin to crop up on construction sites in advance of the picture's September 26th release date. The opening film at this year's Cannes, Blindness seems to have been pretty near universally reviled at the festival and, if the director's previous efforts (City of God, The Constant Gardener) are any indication, there's little cause for optimism that Meirelles' latest effort will, like its source, offer any relevant insight into either the aftermath of an event that still haunts the nation's conscience or indeed into any of the proto-facist tendencies of contemporary America.

Meanwhile, the IFC Center is currently screening the grunt's-eye view Katrina doc Trouble the Water which may not tell us anything we don't already know about the hurricane, but by placing the poorest of New Orleans residents at the heart of the narrative - and making the country's racial divide one of its central concerns - Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's film offers a stirring reminder of the underlying attitudes that allow a natural disaster to become a national travesty. Making ample use of the home footage shot by the film's central subject, aspiring rapper Kimberly Rivers Roberts, Trouble focuses on her efforts, along with her husband Scott and a community of friends and neighbors, to ride out the storm - they lack the financial means to leave their neighborhood - even as their house becomes entirely submerged, to evacuate the city and eventually to start a new life, first in Memphis and then back in New Orleans. Roberts' home footage is necessarily rough but, from its pre-storm evocation of a woefully impoverished community to its depiction of a completely submerged city block to its post-storm survey of war-zone rubble, it is unusually revealing. The central couple themselves bring a note of stubborn optimism to the proceedings, never giving into panic and seizing on the disaster as a chance to begin anew, determined to wring fresh opportunity from heaviest tragedy. If not for this hint of uplift, the film would give in entirely to despair.

Deal and Lessin are everywhere concerned with tracking the official indifference - at all levels of government - that contributed to the disastrous aftermath of the storm. From the refusal of local authorities to provide public transportation to help evacuate those residents living in the city's most vulnerable (and uncoincidentally poorest) areas to the White House's well documented unconcern, the filmmakers document an entire culture of calculated neglect. Perhaps the key quotation - first heard in an opening aural montage and repeated later in the film - comes from George Bush: "We’ve got a job to defend this country in the war on terror and we've got a job to bring aid and comfort to the people of the Gulf Coast, and we’ll do both." Which is really to say that, for the government, the Iraq War comes first and any significant number of troops can simply not be diverted to New Orleans. When we do encounter a regiment of National Guard troops, the filmmakers treat them with evenhanded sensitivity, understanding that they too are victims of governmental unconcern, having just been transferred from Iraq and, we learn in the film's postscript, soon to be redeployed for a second tour.

But not all military members come off as sympathetically as these soldiers. When Scott Roberts approaches a nearly abandoned military barracks in the direct aftermath of the storm and asks for shelter, he's greeted by the cocking of AK-47s and a series of death threats from a squad of irascible soldiers, actions that later earned these hardened military men special government commendation. The official machinery is everywhere committed to a policy of containment, if not outright indifference. We can't be bothered with these indigents, it says, let them fend for themselves. Indeed, whether the setting is the lower Ninth Ward, the overcrowded Superdome or Saramago's mental asylum cum military prison, those who require the most assistance are systematically confined to the most miserable accommodations. As long as they remain invisible, the attitude runs, we don't have to worry about them. Fortunately, Trouble the Water, among its other achievements, goes some way toward restoring the forgotten victims of Hurricane Katrina to visibility.

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