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2008 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize Winner and Oscar Nominated Trouble the Water to Screen at SBL Annual Meeting in New Orleans

Elizabeth A. Castelli, Barnard College

Jennifer Wright Knust, Boston University

Erin Runions, Pomona College

It’s not about a hurricane. It’s about America. So reads the tagline for the deeply affecting 2008 documentary film, Trouble the Water, about Hurricane Katrina and the struggles of the people of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward in its aftermath. More than simply about the devastation wrought by the storm, this film explores the deeper failures of both political systems and political will, failures that left thousands of Americans stranded on rooftops and trapped inside the Louisiana Superdome, failures that continue to resound over four years after the storm waters have receded.

In a session organized around the theme, “New Orleans and Flood Narratives,” the Bible and Cultural Studies Section of the SBL will screen Trouble the Water at the annual meeting in November and follow the screening with a discussion that features filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin along with the film’s main subjects, Lower Ninth Ward residents Kimberly Rivers Roberts, Scott Roberts, and Brian Nobles. The Bible may not be the main subject of the film, but the biblically inflected prose of the narrators resonates long after the film ends. Never has Isaiah 40:31 (“those who wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength . . .”) been asked to carry more.

The story behind the film: Ms. Roberts, a longtime resident of the Lower Ninth Ward, acquired a video camera just before the storm’s arrival in August 2005. Shooting footage as an amateur, she captured striking images of the strengthening storm and the growing sense of alarm and fear as people in her neighborhood began to experience the full impact of the category-3 hurricane and the failure of the city’s levees. Her footage and the commentary that accompanies it are raw and unpolished, offering viewers an unparalleled vantage point on the experience of the hurricane itself. When woven together with footage captured later by filmmakers Deal and Lessin, Roberts’s video testimony provides the foundation for a devastating story. The events following the storm, made all the more destructive by the double failure of the levees and the federal government, is narrated starkly, unsentimentally, and eloquently by the Robertses, their friend Brian Nobles, and the people they meet on their journey to rebuild their lives after the calamity.

The collaboration between the Brooklyn-based filmmakers, who coproduced Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, and the Robertses was serendipitous: Lessin and Deal had originally traveled to New Orleans intending to document the experiences of National Guard troops who had been redeployed from Iraq to Louisiana to provide disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Hitting a dead-end when a National Guard spokesman denied them access to returning soldiers, an encounter that is documented in an early scene in the film, they left the National Guard armory and wandered next door to the Red Cross shelter. The Robertses had seen Deal and Lessin filming, and approached them, saying they had a story to tell. It was some days before Lessin and Deal actually saw Ms. Roberts’s footage, but by then, Kim and Scott had become critical figures in the emerging film project. As Deal and Lessin follow the Robertses and their friend Brian through the Lower Ninth Ward, into temporary exile in Tennessee, and then back again to the ruined streets of their neighborhood, their cameras capture the full measure of chaos, devastation, and bureaucratic breakdown that characterized the aftermath of Katrina. In the process, they also tell a much larger story of how race and poverty amplified the effects of the storm, captured in Ms. Roberts’s searing assessment that their experiences after the storm made them feel as though “we lost our citizenship.”

The political critique and religious resonance of the film emerge, not through a didactic tone, which is markedly absent from the film, but out of the juxtaposition of images and narratives. The film is also a testimony of the power of remediation and remixing—from the suturing together of Kim Roberts’s video images and the footage Deal and Lessin collect later on, to the musical riffing that translates the traditional spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” with its promise that “God’s gonna trouble the water” into a hip-hop anthem, “Trouble the Waters,” written and performed by Kim Roberts in her hip-hop embodiment as Black Kold Madina (http://www.troublethewaterfilm.com/content/pages/trouble_the_water_the_song).

Four years after Katrina, the SBL’s annual meeting in New Orleans provides members with an opportunity to think through the way in which biblical texts may have helped and hindered those who lived through the storm. The Bible and Cultural Studies section has chosen to screen Trouble the Water, so that together we can ask difficult questions, such as: Have responses to Hurricane Katrina been conditioned in any fundamental way by interpretations of the biblical flood narrative or other biblical texts? What is our responsibility as biblical scholars to engage biblically inflected (non-)responses to the devastation of Katrina? What kind of politically responsible biblical scholarship might we envision in the face of the economic dispossession and exploitation in the storm’s aftermath? How might the hermeneutics of race, class, and gender that many have been laboring to elaborate over the last thirty years be pertinent to reading the Bible after Katrina?

Other political storms have threatened to eclipse national political accountability to the people of New Orleans. Trouble the Water presents an opportunity for those of us visiting New Orleans to remember Katrina, to think about its causes and its ongoing effects, and to imagine biblical scholarship as having something to contribute to a contemporary flood narrative. Trained as we are in decoding the layered construction of meaning around historical events, biblical scholars are well positioned also to help deconstruct the layers of religious and political discourse around Katrina that have contributed to a marked apathy toward its devastation and those most deeply affected by it, an apathy all the more visible when set in contrast to, for example, the national response to the events of September 11, 2001.

 

For further viewing and reading:

Katrina has inspired several documentary enterprises, notably:

Spike Lee’s HBO film, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, (http://www.hbo.com/docs/programs/whentheleveesbroke/) and June Cross’s PBS Frontline film, The Old Man and the Storm, which can be viewed in full online (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/katrina/). See now Elizabeth Wood and Gabriel Nussbaum and the film class at the first school to open in New Orleans after Katrina, Wade in the Water, Children: Life as a Kid in an American Crisis, available on DVD and by internet download (http://www.indiepixfilms.com/film/3830).

There has also been a cottage industry of nonfiction books about the storm, its meanings, and its after-effects. Among the best: Tom Piazza, Why New Orleans Matters (New York: Harper, 2005); Jed Horne, Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City (New York: Random House, 2006); and Douglas Brinkley, Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (New York: HarperCollins, 2007). Josh Neufeld’s graphic novel, A.D.: New Orleans after the Deluge (New York: Pantheon, 2009), appeared in August. Moreover, this past summer, Dave Eggers published an especially noteworthy work of nonfiction, Zeitoun (San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2009), in which the trajectory of Katrina intersects fatefully with the trajectory of post-9/11 America in the lives of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American resident of New Orleans, and his wife, Kathy Zeitoun.  

What more you can do:

Visit the “learn what you can do” page on the website of Trouble the Water (http://www.troublethewaterfilm.com/content/pages/learn_what_you_can_do/) for many suggestions about how you can contribute meaningfully to the rebuilding of devastated communities on the Gulf Coast.

Bible and Cultural Studies
Sunday 11/22/2009
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM

New Orleans and Flood Narratives:

A Screening and Discussion of the Film, Trouble the Water

(Zeitgeist Films)

Elizabeth A. Castelli, Barnard College, Presiding
Film Screening: Trouble the Water (Zeitgeist Films)
Panel Discussion
Tia Lessin, Director, Panelist
Carl Deal, Director, Panelist
Kimberly Rivers Roberts, Videographer, Panelist
Scott Roberts, Videographer, Panelist
Brian Nobles, Interviewee, Panelist

 
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