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Hey, How'd You Create Social Impact Using Your Documentary, Trouble The Water?

With a compelling story and richly interactive Web strategy, these filmmakers spurred their audience to take action

By Jennifer Pullinger - September 27, 2010

Trouble the Water filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal
"They cannot say that they did not have the means. Our government is supposed to be one of the greatest, but it's proven to me that, hey, if you don't have money and you don't have status, you don't have the government."

That's a quote from the 2009 Academy Award-nominated documentary Trouble the Water about Hurricane Katrina. If those plain-spoken yet profound words don't spur you to action or compel you to make some changes, the raw, on-the-ground images captured on film will. The critically lauded film's promotional strategy included a robust online engagement program that was key to galvanizing action and helping spread its message -- even though filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal say they didn't set out to "deliver facts or information," rather to simply "tell a story."

Trouble the Water follows the story of Ninth Ward resident and rap star-hopeful Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott as they document the harrowing events that come before and after the storm. The film, directed and produced by Lessin and Deal, did become more than just a story, though. Its website,, became a hub of information -- a place that gave people something "something to do with that hell-raising energy the audience feels when they leave the theater," Lessin and Deal say. The documentary duo will be honored at the 28th annual Harry Chapin Media Awards presented by WhyHunger and Mediabistro on September 28. Ahead of the awards ceremony, we caught up with Lessin and Deal via email to find out how they produced the acclaimed documentary and developed an online community around it.

What was your strategy for raising funds to produce Trouble the Water?
Strategy? Initially we didn't have a strategy, we started making Trouble the Water on an impulse. Kodak donated film stock, friends donated camera equipment, family donated frequent flier miles, and we flew to the central Louisiana city of Alexandria a week after the storm and started shooting. Later, we received grants from the Open Society Institute, the Sundance Documentary Fund, Creative Capital and other documentary funders. And then private investors put up the finishing funds before we premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

You chose a compelling, visceral, and timely subject for your documentary. What advice would you give to others selecting material and interview subjects for their docs?
Trust your instincts, listen carefully, and be impacted by what happens around you. Life takes place outside the narrow lens of the camera, so try to respond to what is going on in the moment, not just what's in your head or written in a treatment. Let yourself be surprised, and your audience will be, too.

"Because the scale of the tragedy was so immense, our goal was to tell an intimate character-driven story, bringing unheard voices to the screen."

How did you find the videographer [Kimberly Rivers Roberts] whose footage is featured?
When we set out for the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Katrina, we wanted to make sense of the disaster, not by talking to experts or officials, but to people who were surviving it. Because the scale of the tragedy was so immense, our goal was to tell an intimate character-driven story, bringing unheard voices to the screen. Kimberly and Scott Roberts approached us about 10 days after the levees failed. We were all in Central Louisiana at a Red Cross Shelter. They were just at the beginning of their post-Katrina journey, and we had just been shut down by the military after filming several days with Louisiana National Guard soldiers returning home from Baghdad. The Roberts were looking to sell their extraordinary POV video which Kimberly shot the day before and the morning of Katrina, and we ultimately used 15 minutes of that footage in the film. But more important than the footage was the Roberts as subjects in front of our cameras: In them, and in their companion Brian Nobles, we found smart, funny, undefeated, indignant and determined survivors struggling to overcome not only Katrina and its aftermath, but also their own troubled pasts. We filmed with them on and off for two years. By sticking close to their journey, we were able to distill so much into one story -- the abandonment of the city's poorest, the incarcerated, and the hospitalized to Katrina's floodwaters, and the government's failures well before, during, and after the storm.

Why do you think your film resonated with audiences, especially critics?
The response of audiences and critics to Trouble the Water has been overwhelming, and we are very grateful for the beautiful emails and reviews. There's nothing more satisfying than watching an audience watch our film. We can't tell you why audiences like the film, but we can tell you why we do. We set out to tell a story, not to deliver facts or information, and we tried to craft a film that was experiential -- rather than just describing an experience, we hoped to give the audience the feeling they were experiencing it first-hand. We didn't want to make the kind of film that told you where it was going before you go there. Perhaps it surprised audiences, because it was such an intimate story, because we didn't include, "Heck of a job, Brownie," as people would expect in a film about Katrina to do, perhaps because the characters we focused on were not the Katrina survivors we saw profiled on the nightly news.

"Our online approach is less about promoting the film and making sales (that we leave to the distributors), and more about sharing new information and giving people something to do with that hell-raising energy the audience feels when they leave the theater."

We think the film continues to resonate five years after the hurricane because Trouble the Water is not just about Katrina -- it's a film about navigating through hard times, through storms big and small, natural and man-made, and these are hard times for so many right now. We suspect that is why the film has reached well beyond the art house crowd and the festival circuit. The Bush Administrations and the conservative right led this country into some very, very dark times over the past three decades. They dismantled social services, gutted environmental protections, deregulated the markets, exempted the U.S. from international laws, and we are all experiencing the tragic consequences of those policies now. It makes sense that a film like Trouble the Water has appealed to audiences and critics alike.

Is there any difference between marketing a fiction film versus a nonfiction film online?
We've never marketed a fiction film online, so we can't answer that question. But we worked hard to build a Web presence as part of our online engagement program, centered on our website. In addition to posting constantly updated news and reviews, a regularly updated blog, and background information about the making of the film, the website gives visitors opportunities to take direct action. One campaign generated nearly 30,000 letters to congress asking lawmakers to take action to create green jobs and sustainably redevelop the Gulf Coast. That campaign was developed with the Gulf Coast Civic Works Campaign, Oxfam America, the RFK Center for Human Rights, and other partners who blasted their lists, as well, directing letter-writers to our online action page.

The trailer for Trouble the Water
When did you realize your online marketing efforts were paying off?
Our online approach is less about promoting the film and making sales (that we leave to the distributors), and more about sharing new information and giving people something to do with that hell-raising energy the audience feels when they leave the theater. A great thing about online engagement is that it can be measured in numbers with tools built into the website, or with free tools like Google Analytics. So we know there have been over a million page hits on, and we know that tens of thousands of people signed up for our email updates, and we know exactly how many of those subscribers have responded to the direct calls for action (more than 25 percent), and so on. If there is a moment where we realized the power of the tool, it was when Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast in 2008. The film was in its first week of release and so was drawing more Web traffic than usual, and that morning we routed 15,000 Web visitors looking to help people forced to evacuate the Gulf Coast to our partner, the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, which was providing immediate financial assistance on the ground in that very moment of crisis.

Given that so many filmmakers and studios are taking advantage of social networking, blogging, mobile applications and so on to promote their films now, how can filmmakers continue to distinguish themselves among the media noise?
Here's what we did beyond the usual film promotion and marketing: Developed an online "Speak Out" campaign that allows anyone to use to send a letter/fax directly to their representatives in Congress to demand action along the Gulf Coast; launched the "Share Your Story" campaign to tell stories and involve our audience in content creation; launched an event module for community groups to add their event and use the site as a resource to RSVP, recruit volunteers for the event or follow up with reminders and information; created and circulated an e-zine about the film which contained content, new and old, and links for viewers to take action; and curated and published a variety of underexposed news articles and reports from partner organizations on the website's news blog and Facebook page.

How important was the interactivity factor (Share your story... Host a screening... on in getting the word out about your film?
The "host a screening" link on has brought in thousands of requests to organize community and/or educational screenings of the film -- resulting in countless events at museums, places of worship, community centers, high schools, universities, and even the harder to reach "beyond-the-choir" organizations like civic and professional associations and government agencies. The distributor of Trouble the Water has told us that the scope of this institutional interest in a film exceeds anything it has seen in its 20 years as one of the leading distributors of independent films, and they credit the strategic outreach campaign for this.

You seem to have formed some strategic partnerships with other organizations. How important were those relationships in spreading your message?
By partnering with organizations at the forefront of Gulf Coast recovery, or groups leading the debate about social and economic justice, we've been able to leverage the film outside the theater to bring more attention to the underlying problems that remain along the Gulf Coast long after the floodwaters receded -- the failing schools, record high incarceration, government accountability, and poverty. What happened in Katrina shined a light on the structural problems that give rise to all these problems, and it happens everyday in New Orleans, and it also happens in New York, and in every other community in the country. The partnerships give the audience new ways to get involved to make change.

Deal and Lessin's Tips for Marketing Your Documentary Online
1. Build a Web presence in addition to a website
2. Harness the time, energy, creativity, thinking, and innovation of your audiences to engage with your content
3. Promote storytelling and involve your audience in content creation
4. Get your audience to take action and create tools that they can share with their networks.

NEXT >> AvantGuildHey, How'd You Write A Tome For Social Change, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn?

Jennifer Pullinger is a freelance writer and book and film publicist in Richmond, Va. Visit her at or @JLPullinger.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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