Call it a curious case of déjà vu. For Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, 2009 began very much the same way its predecessor did: with a pleasant surprise. On Jan. 20, 2008, Trouble the Water, Lessin and Deal's documentary feature about Hurricane Katrina survivors Kimberly and Scott Roberts, drew a standing ovation at its Sundance Film Festival premiere. The next week, it won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary.
A year later, on Jan. 22, as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button dominated the 2009 Academy Award nominations (with 13 nods), the truer New Orleans story shone with just one: Best Documentary. The film is listed by Oscar oddsmakers as the second-favorite to win, behind Man on Wire, the story of Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the World Trade Center's twin towers.
"It's been a heck of a year," says Deal, a producer on Michael Moore's projects in the past but, like partner and fellow New Yorker Lessin, a first-time director. "Tia and I have been to the Oscars before. We were there (in 2003) with Bowling for Columbine. We were at the Cannes Film Festival with Fahrenheit 9/11. We've really seen the power that film, and documentaries in particular, have to influence a national conversation.
"Those films did it in grand fashion. But it's a completely different story with this film. This film is a labor of love, something we've been fighting for from day one."
They still are. During the last year, Deal, Lessin and the Robertses have been on something of a rock 'n' roll tour for the film, bringing it to cities across the country and often conducting question-and-answer sessions afterward. (It returns to New Orleans at the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center this week, and again for a weeklong engagement on Feb. 27.) Currently, they are prepping a broadcast premiere on HBO in April, to be followed by a DVD release. Advance educational copies are already available for schools and community groups.
"We were dedicated to giving people the opportunity to see it collectively, in a theatrical setting," Deal says. "Now, even though people will be seeing it in their living rooms, we're working hard to organize group viewings, particularly around the opening, so people can not only view the film, but engage in some real, meaningful discussion afterward."
Regardless of who takes the gold on Sunday, Deal feels his film's influence on the discussion about Katrina — specifically, its first-person commentary on how governments prioritize and interact with the people they are supposed to serve — is victory enough. Footage of rising floodwaters taken by Kimberly from her attic give the film a unique and powerful perspective.
"We feel so blessed to be where we are," Deal says. "It really doesn't matter. I think it's going to really gel the moment that Kimberly, Scott, Tia and I step out on the red carpet at the Kodak Theatre. What a journey that has been. As far as we're concerned, the attention this is bringing to the film, the validation of Kimberly and Scott's personal story and the validation of the film as a piece of art, we've already won."
Trouble the Water
7:30 p.m. Tue., Feb. 17
Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 827-5858; www.zeitgeistinc.net
The 81st Annual Academy Awards
7 p.m. Sun., Feb. 22