NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - During the months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, pastor Joseph Campion in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward helped hundreds of people wipe away tears. Parishioner Carolyn Parker wasn’t one of them.
Parker, who was one of thousands who lost nearly everything in the disastrous post-Katrina flood, is the subject of a new documentary by Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme in a compelling portrait of how people recover from catastrophic events. It first airs Thursday on PBS.
“I never did that, I didn’t cry, and Father Joe thought that was weird,” Parker says during a reflective moment in the documentary “I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful.”
Parker’s indomitable spirit intrigued Demme from the moment he first spotted her, as he and co-producer Daniel Wolff drove along Jourdan Avenue in June 2006 and paused in front of her scarred and gutted double-shotgun house, their camera pointed toward her.
“Would you like to come in?” a smiling Parker asks, stepping toward them without hesitation in one of the film’s first scenes.
Demme and Wolff not only went in to meet her, but returned repeatedly over the next five years to document her progress in recovering her life and restoring her badly flooded home.
Parker - her husband deceased and her children grown - had plenty of reason to fold her cards and leave the city after the post-Katrina flood submerged 80 percent of New Orleans and killed 1,500 people. Yet she was one of the first to return to her neighborhood and begin working on her house.
“That’s a helluva woman right there,” a neighbor says in the film, gesturing toward Parker’s house in the tattered black neighborhood, which had many problems even before the flood.
Demme, who won an Oscar for directing “The Silence of the Lambs” and has directed or produced more than 30 fiction films and documentaries, said Parker symbolized a wider story he wanted to tell about people trying to regain a sense of normalcy after a catastrophic event.
“I just wanted to find people who would share their experience, and film them and figure out later what to do,” he told Reuters in an interview.
As time passed, he realized he wanted to show a perspective of local New Orleans people that contrasted with other scenes flashed worldwide of victims clinging to rooftops, abandoned in the heat on a highway overpass or screaming for help outside the city’s convention center.
Parker escaped the flood by fleeing the city with her niece, but Demme said she survived everything that came later through her “tenacity, spirituality and good humor.”
“I like to think that ‘I’m Carolyn Parker’ has the potential to shatter some of the preconceived notions folks might have had about the people of New Orleans,” Demme said.
During the 86 minutes of the film, viewers come to know Parker’s determination to live again in the bright green house where she raised three children and fight for the restoration of badly flooded St. David’s Catholic Church, run by her pastor, Rev. Campion.
They hear about her childhood in segregated New Orleans, her developing a sense of activism during the Civil Rights era, and the business savvy that helped her become a sought-after chef.
Viewers see Parker lash out at then Mayor Ray Nagin during a 2006 meeting of a Katrina recovery commission, vowing the city would demolish her house “over my dead body.”
Parker sets her jaw through daily struggles with an unresponsive government, looters and a contractor who takes her money and vanishes without fixing her house.
Throughout the story she repeatedly welcomes back Demme, Wolff and the film crew, never failing to offer a meal prepared in the kitchenette of the trailer set next to her house by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Wolff, who based his recently published book “The Fight for Home” on the struggles of Parker and others in post-Katrina New Orleans, said he was struck by Parker’s openness and friendship.
“It’s as if she’s been expecting someone to come and tell her story,” he said.
Such was the bond between film makers and subject, Demme cast Parker’s daughter Kyrah in his 2008 film “Rachel Getting Married,” after Kyrah left a scholarship at Syracuse University to return and help her mother post-Katrina.
Demme said he hoped that along with introducing people to Parker, the film will leave viewers with a sense of hope that huge hurdles can be overcome with spirit and determination.
“Carolyn Parker is an exceptionally inspirational figure,” Demme said. “I feel like this film is part of the solution, because Carolyn sure is.”
Editing By Christine Kearney and Steve Orlofsky