By Lolis Eric Elie
'Trouble the Water' received an Academy Award nomination for its incredible, real time depiction of the federal levee failures of 2005. In the hours leading up to Hurricane Katrina, Kimberly Rivers Roberts, the subject of the film, interviewed her neighbors as they prepared, or didn't prepare, for the approaching storm. Though she has no training as a journalist or filmmaker, Roberts raised many of the questions and captured many of the images that a more seasoned journalist would have chosen to depict. During the storm, she kept her camera rolling as she and her husband, Scott, struggled to survive the winds and rains. Working with filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, Roberts' video footage became one part of a larger story of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. During the festivities, Roberts, then pregnant, gave birth to her daughter Skyy.
Roberts appeared briefly in the first season of 'Treme' when Davina Lambreaux (Edwina Findley) greets her old friend at a second line parade. The two met again this season in "Promised Land," and Roberts gives Davina a copy of her documentary. The Lambreaux family is so moved by it, they even stop sewing Indian suits to watch.
One of the most moving moments in the documentary occurs as Roberts performs her song, "Amazing," a chronicle of her struggles as the daughter of a drug-addicted mother and, later, as a drug dealer. These days she continues to pursue her music career and her work as a motivational speaker. Here is what she told me in a recent phone interview about her film, her life and her future.
Kimberly Rivers Roberts:
I bought the cameras off the street for $20 about two weeks before the storm. Back then I was selling drugs and the guy wanted $20 worth of crack for the cameras. I bought both of them for $20 each and used both for 'Trouble the Water.' The footage that I shot was my first -- besides teaching myself how to work the camera.
Before Katrina, we had Hurricane Dennis. We stayed for that one. I evacuated for another one. For Katrina, I didn't have transportation; my car was stolen a week before the storm hit. I would have left if I had had transportation -- I didn't intend on staying and filming. It was pure coincidence.
The day before I shot the hurricane footage, I was going around talking to my neighbors and interviewing them, asking them what they were going to do for the storm, like I was a newscaster or something. People were really serious about not being able to leave and what they were doing. I was inspired to tell the story as people started opening up to me. I started feeling New Orleans was going to change somehow and I wanted to tell the whole story of before, during and afterward. It was as if I was on a mission. That's what inspired me to keep shooting.
I don't think I really was afraid during the storm, but I had a low point in the attic. I wasn't afraid because I knew I could swim. I knew my husband couldn't swim, and I knew if I had to, I would have helped him. You could hear the shingles flying off the roof and you could hear the wood in the attic moving up and down, off the roof. I had to calm myself and pray -- fear would stop me from handling my business. I just held on to my faith and believed that that there was a God who would help me. That definitely calmed me.
Katrina was more horrendous then people thought. However, the God in most of us rose up to the occasion. People were protecting each other and putting their own lives in danger for the sake of other people. The greater part of the human spirit showed itself. It was the storm that brought out the greater part of their personality. The youngsters who had the guns and the drugs, the ones who would be on the corners, those were the people helping folks get out of the city and evacuate. They had the courage to go in the stores to get food, clothes and living supplies so that people could survive while they waited days for the government to rescue them. A lot of people don' talk about that
I'm still pushing my music. My new album,'Queens' is due to drop soon. I wrote the music. I worked Niyo and Jamal Batiste on the tracks. I also work with Rick Naiser who did the engineering for the album and co-produced it. I have great music on there, like "Brother Came Home." It's a celebration of our brothers who came home from Iraq, prison or wherever. It's a celebration of those people in our lives, who despite their downfalls, mean a lot to us. Also, my second song to be released is called "New Orleans." It's a song about the love for the city.
My husband co-produced 'Queens.' We just celebrated 17 years of our relationship and 13 years of marriage. So we're teenagers in love. I'm doing motivational speaking through my own speakers bureau, The Amazing Unbreakable Speakers Bureau. We speak all over at universities, high schools and conferences. We're trying to reach our young people here in New Orleans, for sure. We come from a background that a lot of New Orleans African-American students come from, so we can relate to them.
My daughter, she's 4 years old. She goes to school and she's doing great. For some reason, she thinks she was in 'Trouble the Water.' She always says "Ma, I'm on 'Trouble the Water' with you and daddy." I always say the same thing to her: "Yes you are, but only in spirit."