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THE NEW YORK TIMES, "Voice, Eyes and Camera of Katrina Survivors

March 31, 2008

By Manohla Dargis The main reason to check out the second and slack final week of this year's edition of New Directors/New Films, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, is the superb documentary ''Trouble the Water,'' about Hurricane Katrina and its equally calamitous aftermath. One of the best American documentaries in recent memory, the film was directed and produced by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, a couple of New Yorkers who, like much of the rest of the world, were watching television in horror in 2005 as the natural disaster was quickly followed by a human one. Unlike most of us Ms. Lessin and Mr. Deal took action, flying to Louisiana a week after the storm hit. In an interview with the online journal Indiewire the filmmakers, who have worked on several Michael Moore features, including ''Fahrenheit 9/11,'' said they were originally interested in documenting the return of National Guard soldiers from Baghdad, the idea being that they would follow the troops as they entered what was essentially a new battle front. Their attempts to tell that story, however, were thwarted by the National Guard public affairs team, which, the filmmakers said, blocked access to the troops with a provocative kicker: '' 'Fahrenheit 9/11' screwed it up for all you guys.'' At that point some filmmakers might have packed it in. For whatever reason -- it's easy to imagine that laboring alongside Mr. Moore requires enormous patience -- they stuck around Louisiana and did the most important thing any filmmaker working in either fiction or nonfiction can do: They let their subject take them to the unexpected. In this case the unexpected was embodied by two residents of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, an aspiring musician named Kimberly Roberts and her husband, Scott Roberts, who more or less commandeered the documentarians into making a very different story than the one they had envisioned. Ms. Lessin and Mr. Deal didn't just turn the camera on the Robertses; they handed the film over to them. It turns out that Ms. Roberts had bought a video camera on the street just before Katrina landed. With no means of escape, she and her husband had no choice but to ride out the storm. Perhaps in an attempt to put some distance between her and the coming disaster, she decided to videotape the storm, a project to which she remained faithful even as the water crept up her front steps. Like anyone else who grew up watching television, Ms. Roberts turns out to be well-versed in the idiom of television news, an apprenticeship that becomes apparent as she roams her increasingly inundated neighborhood interviewing friends and family and even at times signs off using her rap name, Black Kold Madina. A beautiful woman with a bashful smile and a swagger, Ms. Roberts is an extraordinarily vivid screen presence. She's a tremendous documentary subject, and if ''Trouble the Water'' simply tracked what this one gutsy 24-year-old endured as she and her husband and friends moved to higher ground and eventually out of Louisiana altogether, it would be enough to warrant your attention. But Ms. Lessin and Mr. Deal haven't cooked up yet another softheaded story about triumphant humanity; with the help of these New Orleans residents, they have made a powerful political argument, backed by evidence provided by the shaming indifference of the government, that to be poor and black in America is to be an exile in America. It's like ''we lost our citizenship,'' Ms. Roberts says with haunting directness. It's impossible not to feel the sting of those words and their truth. There's plenty of sting throughout ''Trouble the Water'' (the title comes from a spiritual), as Ms. Lessin and Mr. Deal repeatedly and fluidly move back and forth between the Katrina story as it was lived and recounted by the Robertses and how it was shaped rather differently by both the news media and government officials like Michael D. Brown, the soon-to-be-disgraced director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The distance between those two narratives is at times shockingly if not surprisingly vast, and much like the New Orleans levees, one of them is finally breached. One of the strongest of the other 13 features showing this week is ''Foster Child,'' a touching Filipino fiction about an indigent woman who supplements her family's income by serially fostering very young children. With a sure hand and indelible tenderness, the director Brillante Mendoza brings you into the cluttered, overcrowded, chaotic world of Thelma, a wife and mother who has made a place in her tiny home and large heart for a toddling charmer, John-John. Shot in the familiar quasidocumentary, tag-along style, ''Foster Child'' at first seems too narrowly focused on Thelma's personal tribulations but eventually throws open a window onto a world in which the only available remedy to the combination of poverty and religion rests in the bank accounts of childless foreigners. Among the week's other worthwhile entries is the Thai film ''Wonderful Town,'' a fine, drifty tale with a lovely sense of place from Aditya Assarat that takes an unfortunate swerve into melodramatic violence; ''XXY,'' a delicate, emotionally potent Argentine drama from LucĂ­a Puenzo about a teenage hermaphrodite; and ''Valse Sentimentale,'' a grubby love story from Greece courtesy of Constantina Voulgaris that will either work your nerves raw or charm you. (I caved.) Finally there's ''A Lost Man,'' a road movie set in the Middle East from Danielle Arbid about two men -- one a French photographer with a taste for kink, the other a dazed refugee from Lebanon's civil war -- who set off on an idiosyncratic, at times dark journey into the soul. Each takes turns at being lost; only one ends up found. New Directors/New Films runs through Sunday at the Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street, Lincoln Center, and at the Museum of Modern Art; Tickets: (212) 721-6500.

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