Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I Turn My Camera On: Part Four

A Chat with Tia Lessin (click here for part three)


Actually, he’s having us out to the Traverse City Film Festival next month.
He [Michael Moore] created the film festival a few years back. He renovated
a theater in Traverse City that he owns, so he’s inviting us to show the film.

That’s great, because that really, in a way, puts his stamp on it, as well.
Here’s another person saying: This is something I think you should see.

Like most everybody with any kind of conscience in this country, he had strong feelings about Katrina, so he was really happy to see this political, emotional film.

I read about how you ended up in New Orleans, and why you made the film,
but how did Kim and Scott, these specific people, come to your attention?

In the National Guard Armory, which you see in the film with the soldiers return-
ing; across the parking lot was the Red Cross shelter where Kimberly and Scott had arrived that night with 25 people in a truck, so their community—their friends and neighbors—were staying there, and they were down the road in a trailer, so they had this footage, they knew they had a story to tell, and they spotted us from the street.

How funny.

[Lessin and Deal originally intended to make a film about the
redeployment of the National Guard from Iraq to New Orleans.]

The view from Kimberley's attic

The story that Kim and Scott tell is that they saw us, we looked important, and
they honed right in. So that’s really how the film begins, with Kimberly essentially interrupting the interview Carl was doing with the head of the Red Cross shelter. Some people call it serendipity, some people call it fate—it happened to be Carl’s 40th birthday. Look, there are a lot of people with incredible stories to tell, and they’re not really extraordinary storytellers like Kimberly. I think that was really—
the footage she had was important ultimately, but also her voice, her ability, and
her invitation for us to get on the road with them to see how their story turns out.

That’s amazing that she found you.

And we were looking for a story to tell, there’s no question about it, and we also realized that it was the personal story that was lacking, that we weren’t seeing in
the news media, and we objected to how the residents of New Orleans were being characterized. They were either victims or they were looters, and Kimberly and Scott presented this opportunity to tell a story of survivors, of powerful resourceful people who were nobody’s victims, so they were looking for someone to help them get the story out, we were looking for someone…our objectives were aligned, let’s say that.

And you end up getting their community’s story out, too—not that Scott and Kim-
berly wouldn’t be interesting enough, but other people come on board, as well. I wanted to ask you, and I know you don’t have much time to go in to detail, but I’m sure not everyone realizes she had a baby at Sundance. I’m wondering how else their lives have changed since the film, because they go through so many changes during the course of it, through moving to Memphis, and other things that happen.

The thing I’m starting to think about Kim and Scott is that they have used ev-
ery crisis in their lives as an opportunity. I mean, they’ve been through a lot of storms—whether related to Katrina or not—and they have emerged from the other end stronger, and so they decided to have a baby, and not just to have a baby, but they decided they were in a good place where they could have a baby, and where they had created a good environment in which that would be possible. Kimberly has also recorded a new album, and they created a record company called Born Hustler Re-
cords. You can look at the website at She's selling it in con-
junction with the film’s release, so some of the songs you hear on our soundtrack are on this album, and many more. And they’re raising this beautiful little girl. And
I guess the one other thing, she’s been traveling around with this film. And unfor-
tunately, she wasn’t able to come to Seattle, but they’ve been to New York, they’ve been to Utah. They’ve been able to see audiences respond, really emotionally, to the film and their story, and I think that has been life-changing for them.

After Hoop Dreams came out, there was some talk about the fact—and the film-
makers were open about this—there’s a point in which the electricity gets turned
off for one of the subjects, and the filmmakers pay the bill. And in the film, the lights go off, then they're back, and the film moves on. I’m wondering how you and Carl feel about this, when you’re watching people going through a crisis. Is it wrong to do something like that, or is it something you don’t even have to talk about?

First of all, Kimberly and Scott aren't just subjects in this film. They contributed to it.

I think that’s how the Hoop Dreams directors felt, too:
We’re in these people’s faces with cameras at all times, so...

Right. She also had footage, which we licensed. We paid commercial rates, so: yes.

I don’t have a problem with it. And since then, I think the issue isn’t as contro-
versial as it was at that time, but then what do you do, leave these people with-
out electricity? That’s your only other choice, at least in the case of Hoop Dreams.

Everybody has a different situation, and I think documentary filmmakers need to interrogate themselves about their relationships with—Carl’s and Tia’s situation in this world is quite different from Kimberly’s and Scott’s. We have a lot of power and privilege that we try to keep in check, and we interrogate ourselves all the time.

That’s good, and I like your clarification. It’s important to remember, as viewers, that they might be subjects to us, but not to you. That’s a good point to make.

We licensed their footage, but we pretty much kept out of their
lives as much as we could, because they had a lot to do. [laughs]

And she seemed pretty comfortable. I love that line in the film where someone asks, ‘Do you always travel around with a film crew?’ I thought that was great.

That was literally after only about a week with us. She was a natural.


Trouble the Water is now available on DVD. For more information,
please click here. Images from indieWIRE, Ojai Docs, and Zeitgeist Films.

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