Trouble the Water

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Directors: Tia Lessin and Carl Deal; Release date: 5 December

When producers/directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (best known for Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine) first met Kimberly and Scott Roberts at a Red Cross centre in Louisiana two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, they were about to give up on a planned documentary.

They had intended to follow the Louisiana National Guard, just back from Iraq to deal with the post-hurricane aftermath, but were blocked by army handlers from filming.

Kimberly started talking to them and proclaimed, "Nobody got what I got." She was right. Forced to stay in New Orleans during the hurricane with no means to evacuate, Kimberly used her new $20 camcorder to record the experience. Her astonishing footage is the core of this powerful documentary.

At first it's almost light hearted as she goes round her ninth ward neighbourhood talking to people in the hours before the hurricane hits. She puts on a mock news style as she asks why they have not left and if they are scared. It feels like a fun home movie. Nothing prepares you for what is to come. While her battery holds out she documents the rising winds and rain. But when the levees break, the effect is devastating. She and her husband huddle in an attic with neighbours, including children and a disabled woman, as water laps in. They are left to fend for themselves for days before Larry, a truly heroic neighbour, uses a punch bag as a float to rescue each of them.

Lessin and Deal tell the story of Katrina with Kimberly's incredible footage intercut with clips from news channels. The recordings of 911 calls made as the levees break are horrifying. Even in desperation the callers are respectful of authority, "Ma'am, please help." The operator replies mechanically: "There are no rescue teams at this moment." "So I'm gonna die," sighs one woman, not strong enough to break a hole in her attic roof. When the screen cuts to George Bush saying how "impressed" he is with the authorities' response it's like a punch in the stomach.

After their chance meeting the "real" documentary makers take up the story, but maintain the home movie feel. They follow Kimberly and Scott as they move to join relatives in Memphis, then decide to try to rebuild their lives in the wreckage that is their New Orleans neighbourhood.

At every turn human resilience is pitted against a system that exudes racism and callousness. It is still difficult to take in footage of the convention centre with thousands of people destitute, the old and sick in wheelchairs, and dead bodies left to decompose in the richest, most powerful country in the world.

You may have seen many of the great political documentaries of the last few years and wonder if you want to see another. Trouble the Water is something special, and part of that is the remarkable Kimberly Roberts herself.

This personal story reveals brutal truths about US society: the divisions of race and class and the impact of the ever-present war in Iraq. Kimberly's aunt says she will do whatever it takes to stop her son joining the army: "You're not going to fight for a country that doesn't give a damn about you."

As one survivor says to troops patrolling the ninth ward like occupiers, "This is the war right here." Don't miss this film.