There have been a number of films about the national disaster and scandal of Hurricane Katrina—but none have put you as directly into the eye of that storm as Trouble the Water. The official directors of this documentary—Tia Lessin and Carl Deal—should really share helming credit with Kimberly Roberts, the woman at the center of their film, whose video footage of the encroaching and then engulfing torrent provides the hair-raising dramatic meat of the movie.

Roberts was among the thousands of New Orleans residents unable to flee the city and she, her husband Scott, family and friends were forced to hole up in the attic of their deluged house as the water rose ever higher. Although shaky and amateurish, her video captures not only the terror of the moment, but the deeply human responses of the stranded. A neighbor who had formerly been on bad terms with Scott emerges as a hero, rescuing people in shoulder-deep water with a boxer’s punching bag. Roberts lost an uncle and her grandmother in the disaster, and these tragedies are interspersed with infuriating interviews with government officials and FEMA representatives whose hapless words and ineptitude are eternally, shamefully preserved. (President Bush is seen, ensconced at some country club during another national disaster, mouthing ineffectual inanities.)

At one point, Scott unsuccessfully entreats soldiers at an unused naval barracks to provide shelter for his neighbors and practically finds himself facing down gun barrels. And, yes, we see the miserable hordes of people who were forced to find shelter at the Superdome, causing one to wonder when, exactly, the United States became a Third World country. Through it all, Kimberly’s indomitable survivor’s spirit shines though, a literal beacon of hope and comfort to the dispossessed surrounding her. When she and her husband find a momentary out-of-state refuge through the kindness of friends, the manicured lawns and well-kept houses of their new neighborhood strike them as a paradise after what they’ve experienced (“Black folk live here?”). Their hostess rants meaningfully about refusing to let her son enlist to serve a country so indifferent to the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. The filmmakers end things with a searingly autobiographical rap by Roberts, proving, like all true artists, that she is able to integrate her very hard-knock life’s experience—however harrowing—into something deeply meaningful.