Few films stir a flood of emotions like “Trouble the Water,” for my money the definitive statement on Hurricane Katrina and the acts of cowardice and heroism it precipitated.

Few films stir a flood of emotions like “Trouble the Water,” for my money the definitive statement on Hurricane Katrina and the acts of cowardice and heroism it precipitated.

Like almost all the best documentaries, it happened completely by accident for directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, who had the great fortune to make the acquaintance of Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband, Scott Roberts, in a Red Cross shelter in Alexandria, La., days after the Robertses fled their waterlogged New Orleans home.

The young couple from the devastated Lower 9th Ward literally walked in front of the filmmakers’ cameras offering to sell them something any documentarian would die for: two hours of camcorder footage shot by Kimberly depicting her neighborhood the day before the storm, the storm (and all its fury) itself, and most compelling, the acts of heroism carried out by neighbors as the disease-filled waters rose.

That footage is the centerpiece of “Trouble the Water” and it is absolutely riveting. I swear I didn’t take a breath for almost 15 minutes while being wrung of every emotion from laughter, sadness and finally anger over learning that so many people were left to fend for themselves because of incompetence on the part of a government sworn to serve and protect.

Most harrowing are the 911 calls played over the footage, many of them placed by elderly residents trapped alone in their attics with no food or water. All of them informed by an operator that no help was coming.

The government took five full days to send in any aid or search-and-rescue teams, which is absolutely disgraceful. But not as disgraceful as the actions of the sailors at a nearby Navy base who refused to offer shelter to the Robertses and a handful of their hungry, thirsty neighbors, welcoming them with pointed M-16s instead of compassion.

It’s truly haunting, but it’s not the most memorable aspect of “Trouble the Water.” That would be Kimberly and Scott Roberts and their twin victories over the adversity of Katrina and the drugs and petty crime that were their lives before the storm.

For me, the impromptu kindness and concern they display to their neighbors in their city’s darkest hour only illustrates how they were victims of government inaction long before Katrina hit, letting two very talented and intelligent people simply slip through the cracks into a swirling cesspool of zero opportunity.

Which only makes their rise from the ashes in the days and weeks following Katrina all the more inspiring, as they begin forging productive lives backed by an infectious refuse-to-be-broken attitude.

For the Robertses, Katrina was like a 160 mph epiphany, unlocking a will to not only survive, but also to succeed in a nation where the cards are almost always stacked against people of color and low income.

The Patriot Ledger