Booming applause resounded through Emerson Suites at Ithaca College Tuesday as the audience stood in appreciation for “Trouble the Water,” a documentary about Hurricane Katrina’s effect on New Orleans.
Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, producers and directors of the film, strode onto the stage and settled into the two chairs at the center of the platform. Each held microphones a round of questions from faculty and students.
Lessin and Deal came to the college on a two-day visit to screen their film and discuss with students and faculty the process of producing and promoting a documentary.
Jeff Cohen, director of the journalism department and director of the Park Center for Independent Media, said students have benefited from the visit.
“Students were blown away last night,” he said. “[There was a] packed house and the reaction so far is that this has been a real powerful experience.”
An Oscar-nominated film, “Trouble the Water” followed the story of Kimberly and Scott Roberts, two residents of New Orleans that didn’t evacuate the city because of the financial burden. The couple remained the subject of the film, as they struggled to survive the storm and trials of starting a new life in a broken city.
Deal said they decided to make the Roberts’ hardship the focus of the film because of the effectiveness of their story in relaying views on the poverty in New Orleans.
“We had a lot that we wanted to say,” he said. “We felt like we could say what we wanted to say most effectively if we stayed out of it and let the story just rise.”
Cohen said besides having made a critically acclaimed film, these two guests could speak to the students about their experiences in the film industry.
“I know that these two, besides having made a gripping documentary, can talk unglamorously about the hard work of becoming a successful independent producer and independent documentarian,” he said.
Prior to their success with “Trouble the Water,” Lessin and Deal produced the documentaries Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine. Even with these past successes, though, funding the film was a challenge. Each step of this process became a challenge as they received little financial backing from networks.
Lessin said many networks turned the film down because they could not foresee an audience interest in the story.
“I can’t tell you how many people said Katrina is old news,” she said. “There’s Katrina Fatigue. This is about October, November of that year.”
Deal said networks gave them the cold shoulder.
“Two executives [at a cable network] said come back when you have some white characters,” he said.
The biggest message Lessin and Deal delivered while at the college was overcoming challenges and fighting for a voice can change people’s perspectives and someday the nation’s.
“What we tried to do with our film was not only tell a story about Katrina but about poverty long before the levees broke, about people who had been abandoned by their government,” Lessin said.