Sunday, October 19, 2008

I Turn My Camera On: A Chat with Tia Lessin


I bought that camera the week before to record family events. I actually didn't
know how to use the camera. I didn't know what inspired me-I guess God in-
spired me-but when the storm was coming I just picked it up to show people
what was going to happen. And look what all happened!

-- Kimberly Rivers Roberts

***** ***** ***** *****

During this year's Seattle International Film Festival, I interviewed Tia Lessin, co-director with Carl Deal of Trouble the Water. It wasn't just one of the highlights of SIFF, but of the entire documentary year, and this has been a great year for docs.

At the time I met with Lessin, she was exhausted after a long night at Alpha
Cine, the post-production prize she and Deal won at the 2008 Full Frame Doc-
umentary Festival. Soft-spoken and easygoing, Lessin often looked as if she was
about to drift off into dreamland. To her credit, she never did, although she kept
her eyes closed for much of our conversation-and always made perfect sense.

Though their debut has received some of the year's more glowing reviews, too many make it sound uplifting in the classic Hollywood definition of the word. I won't deny that there's a substantial degree of uplift, but this is also an angry, troubling work.

Lessin and Deal place a great deal of faith in collaborators Scott and Kimberly Rivers Roberts (the filmmakers eschew the word subjects), but cast a more jaundiced eye on the forces that would strand such decent, hardworking people in their time of great-
est need-before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina-but they never resort to pol-
emics, manipulation, or any of the other dirty tricks of the mainstream-movie trade.

Trouble the Water plays the Varsity for one week only: 10/17-23. Don't miss it.

Despite the quality of Kimberly's footage, the
rest of the film is good enough to compensate.

We had so much marginal footage between news and police footage,AePit's been a challenge, but people are pretty forgiving, I think, because the drama is so powerful.
And you have a strong narrative. So, when did you and
Carl start working together and how did you meet?

Carl and I met in 1989 in DC. As for our partnership, we were not doing film or vid-
eo work. Carl was doing investigative reporting, and I was working for a non-profit.
That's interesting. You have similarities with Courtney Hunt, who has roots in DC and wasn't necessarily doing anything film-related before she made that transition.
[Click here for my interview with Hunt.]
I didn't know that. I was a labor organizer for many years.
You and [former employer] Michael Moore must've had a real meeting of the minds.
Yeah. [smiles] The truth is that this big campaign I was working on, the BBC
came and did a little documentary about it for television, and I was more fas-
inated with them, I think, then they were with our campaign. [laughs] I was like: Really-you can do this for a living,AeP? And I've seen some powerful films that real-
ly made an impact. Roger and Me, of course, was one of them-long before I met
with Michael-and [Barbara Kopple's] Harlan County USA; some incredible stories.
And then, at a certain point, I just got the technical skills I needed and got right
in there on the ground floor, working, doing whatever I could-researching or what-
ever. And Carl was doing more traditional print and broadcast journalism and went
to Columbia Journalism School, and we got together-it's been about 15 years that we've been together as a couple-and about five years ago, we started working on projects together. He was doing more sort of AP/EBU journalism, and I found my
way into working with Michael and working on more independent documentaries,AeP
Did you go to film school?
No, I just learned by doing.
That's amazing.
I applied to film school, and instead I just went to New York. I started working
in DC, I guess, around the same time the AVIDs came out, so I knew how to,AeP
Good timing.
Exactly. I taught a lot of editors how to work on the AVID. My social"ssue background came full circle when I started working with Michael, first on TV Nation, and then we produced The Awful Truth, Bowling for Columbine, and Fahrenheit, and Carl joined on Columbine, because we realized it wasn't gonna be too much fun not to do it together.
Click here for part two
Winner of the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film
Festival, Trouble the Water continues at the Varsity Theatre (4329 Univer-
ity Way NE) through Thurs., 10/23. For more information, please click here
or call 206-781-5755. The song "I Turn My Camera On" appears on Spoon's
2005 album, Gimme Fiction. Images from the official website and Sundance.
10/24: the film continues at the Guild 45th (2115 N 45th St.) through 10/30.

1 comment:

  1. Great news: "Trouble the Water" has been shortlisted for an Oscar nomination. Other titles include Werner Herzog's "Encounters at the End of the World" and James Marsh's "Man on Wire," which I review at For more information, please see the indieWIRE announcement: