Just before the Oscars, the National Archives sponsored a showing of all the shorts ( saw the live-action shorts) and each of the documentary features. I was lucky enough to catch Trouble the Water, which is easily one of the best films of 2008.
There is a scene about midway through the movie when a National Guardsman, referring to New Orleans residents who made it through Katrina, says "These people just don't know how to survive." Until this moment, we have seen home-video coverage of how Kimberly Rivers and her husband make it through the storm and help neighbors survive. At the screening I was at, the comment caused an audible gasp in the audience. If anyone knows how to survive, there is little doubt after seeing this movie that it is the people we have been following.
The filmmakers, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, went down to New Orleans a couple weeks after Katrina to shoot a documentary about the National Guard helping out in Iraq. This project fizzled because of governmental concerns, but they luckily met Kimberly. Kimberly shot home video in the day leading up to the storm, the day of the storm, and the weeks after as they try to rebuild their lives. A large chunk of the movie is taken up with Kimberly's video, while the rest follows Kimberly, her husband, and assorted others as they struggle to survive and get help.
No matter how much you have already seen of Katrina, it is absolutely astonishing to see what it was like to be in the middle of the storm. It also paints a picture of the lower-ninth-ward community as one that is troubled, yes, but also has enormous stores of goodwill and care for neighbors. It shows that most of those who stayed did so because they simply did not have transportation out of the storm.
It's not until later in the movie that we find out Kimberly is an aspiring rap artist. The scene where she sings her song "I'm Amazing" is one of the best scenes of the year. Once you see this documentary, you won't soon forget Kimberly and her struggles, and you won't think about Katrina the same way again. This movie is a portrait of some true American heroes, helping their neighbors and doing the best they can.
While Man on Wire was certainly artfully made, in my mind there is no question that Trouble the Water far surpasses it in emotional resonance. I think it easily deserved the Academy Award.