Five months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Academy Award winning director Jonathan Demme and his friend and neighbor, writer/producer Daniel Wolff, traveled to the Crescent City interested in documenting the damage and rebuilding. What they thought would be a few trips turned into a six-year project producing 500 hours of video that chronicles the individuals’ stories of survival, return, and reconstruction.
That project has yielded the documentary, I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad and the Beautiful, directed by Demme and produced by Wolff and the book, The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back written by Wolff.
"We got down there five months after the flood, him with a camera, me with a notebook and with no particular plan. Mostly we were just winging it.”
On Sunday, Wolff will be in Houston to read from that book at Brazos Bookstore and to answer questions about I'm Carolyn Parker at a special screening of the film at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Before his visit, he talked with CultureMap about the creation of the film and book and the extraordinary ordinary people they portray.
Wolff was the executive producer of Demme’s 2002 film The Agronomist, a documentary on the life of the assassinated Haitian journalist Jean Dominique, who was a friend of both Demme and Wolff. Wolff says that after Jean Dominique’s death, “We talked to each other and kind of couldn’t figure out what to do, then decided we should do what we do, which is try to tell the story. And we just went down there and did it.”
A complicated story
This reaction, to tell a story in the midst of tragedy, appears to be the same motivation for Demme and Wolff’s first trip to New Orleans after Katrina. "We got down there five months after the flood, him with a camera, me with a notebook and with no particular plan, and with a couple of introductions from people. Mostly we were just winging it. We rented a car and drove and we started to meet people.”
As they met people, they realized the story of Katrina’s aftermath was not one they could understand and tell with a few visits.
“Then we became friends with people and very involved and made a vow to ourselves and them that we would stay until they all got back in their houses, which we thought would be a year or two at the most,” Wolff recounts.
A couple of years into the process, as they were discovering the material would make for several documentaries which would take much more time to complete, Wolff decided, with Demme’s encouragement, that the lives they were chronicling and stories they were hearing could also be told within a book.
A force to be reckoned with
“While movies are so great about getting the moment and the look of someone and the action,” says Wolff, a book might provide a “different frame to the information.“ A book might cover some of the deep background, context, and history that the film could not, and a book could cover some of the people they were interviewing who might not make it into the films.
One story that becomes the focus of the first film, I’m Carolyn Parker, and book, The Fight for Home, is Parker’s five-year struggle to move back into her home in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.
Explaining the difference between the film and book, Wolff says, “I’m Carolyn Parker does an amazing job, mostly thanks to Jonathan, of bring Carolyn Parker right into your living room. She is a force to be reckoned with, and you get to meet her and sit down with her. She’s one of those women who you might walk right by her without realizing what it there. She doesn’t broadcast it. The whole world has stereotypes and you might not explore her the way you should, while the movie gets you right in there.”
Carolyn Parker is a “featured player” in the book, but Wolff expands the focus and widens the shot.
“I put her in the neighborhood she’s in, the Holy Cross Neighborhood, and talk to a bunch of the neighbors about what they’re going through. In a way, it’s the story of the block, more than it’s just a story of Carolyn and her house. That interested me for a lot of reasons. One of them was it’s an integrated block in the Lower Ninth Ward with great people on it and a lot of them came back very early, as did Carolyn, so I just liked putting her in the context of a whole group of people in the neighborhood,” he describes.
"Not every place floods, but the issues that came up like health care, like education, like the police, like poverty, seem to me to be issues in cities all over, from Houston to Detroit to Oakland to Baltimore.”
Yet for all its ability to add the context of neighborhood, city, and history to the individual stories, The Fight for Home does have somewhat of a documentary feel. Wolff’s voice, or any editorializing voice for that matter, is mostly muted in the narration. There is an immediacy in the action as the book is written predominantly in present tense and the book jumps into the lives of the returning Ninth Ward residents without introduction or forward.
Influenced by nonfiction works from the Great Depression like James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Wolff says of his writing style, “I worry that these voices don’t get heard. A voice like mine gets heard more often than two people struggling to make a go of it. I tried to get out of the way as much as possible and let readers meet people that otherwise you might pass right by."
While Fight for Home focuses mainly on the Holy Cross Neighborhood, reading the book, I began to see this one neighborhood as representing the struggles of the whole city, and that the whole city of New Orleans could serve as a kind of warning for the rest of the country.
When I asked Wolff is this was his intention, he said New Orleans could be seen as an “indicator, not just a warning.”
“I thought it was a story that is true for lots and lots places in American. Not every place floods, but the issues that came up like health care, like education, like the police, like poverty, seem to me to be issues in cities all over, from Houston to Detroit to Oakland to Baltimore.”
Houston is the only Texas city where Wolff will be making an appearance to talk about the film and book. He wanted to come here “because no other city in the nation has been as affected by the flooding of New Orleans.” He wants to talk to Houstonians but he also hopes some former New Orleanians will come to the Brazos reading or MFAH film screening.
“My hope is that people come out who can teach me about New Orleans and teach me about leaving it. I talked to a bunch of people in the city who came back from Houston after a year or two years. I also know of people who never came back, or haven’t so far. They’ve set up a life in Houston that was better. The pay was a little better. The housing was a little better.
"Their hearts may be in New Orleans and they may come back but Houston has given them an opportunity they couldn’t find at home, and I’d love to talk to those people, too.”
Daniel Wolff will discuss and sign his book, The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back, at Brazos Bookstore at 2 p.m. Sunday. He will also be at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston for a 7:15 p.m. screening of I'm Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful.