Katrina documentary recalls Berkshires

On Monday evening, the psychology department hosted a screening of the documentary, I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful, a film co-produced by author and filmmaker, Daniel Wolff, at Images Cinema. The film, directed by Jonathan Demme, picks up the story of Parker, who was born and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, four months after Hurricane Katrina in 2006.

Parker is a strong, idealistic woman and a central figure in a community struggling to rebuild. Like others in New Orleans, she fights against what Wolff calls “Katrina fatigue,” where after the first national push for aid and support, people became tired of the story and moved on to other news and causes. In the film, Parker is ready to tell her story at the first chance she gets. As Wolff tells it, as he and Demme were filming in the streets of the Lower Ninth Ward, she saw them from her home and said, “I know what you’re doing,” enthusiastically inviting them in. Wolff and Demme had decided that they would film each temporal season, thinking that there would be some resolution after a year. They discovered, however, that the problems of New Orleans are deeper than the scars of the hurricane.

The pair ended up filming over a period of five years, becoming closer to Parker and her neighbors with each visit. Over this period, Parker endured a number of ups and downs. The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave her a trailer, a contractor stole her relief money, she got help from volunteers, her church was re-opened and there was incremental change in her house. Throughout the film, Parker’s spirit remains unbroken and her warmth endears her to the filmmakers and the audience. The film provides a look into her life and a face for the victims of Katrina. She cooks for the film crew and during Hurricane Sandy, Wolff says that the film subjects called him to make sure that he was prepared. During the Q&A session, audience members asked about how Parker and her family were doing, betraying the concern and emotional involvement that the film gave them.

Earlier in the afternoon, Wolff discussed his experiences in New Orleans and the basis of his new book, The Fight For Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back, with campus and community members. He told of how post-Katrina New Orleans is compelling not only because of the disaster relief effort, but because it tested “how we treat our fellow citizens, given a chance to rebuild a city.” Much of the struggle in New Orleans springs from conflicting views on how to rebuild: The new city government, for instance, has a vision of a “boutique city” as a method of revitalizing the economy, a plan that would include demolishing largely vacant spaces with flood risk and selling the land to developers to build structurally sound, sustainable, tourist-driven neighborhoods. This urban renewal effort would effectively push the poor communities of these neighborhoods out, change city demographics and pass off concerns of inequality on surrounding areas.

Wolff explained that a “boutique city” based around tourism will not provide an economy that will grow in the ways that the city needs. According to his research, New Orleans has been on the decline for the past century, billing itself as an antique curiosity with a service economy. A man he met while filming his documentary called New Orleans a “plantation city” where people had “just enough money to live and be happy but could not get ahead.” He expressed the sentiment that there is a failure in how America treats its poor. Expanding this discussion to the Berkshires, Wolff asked audience members if they had encountered anything similar in the area. Many voiced concern about the flooding of the Spruces after Hurricane Irene and how so little was done to help one of the few locations of affordable housing in Williamstown. Others discussed the lack of substantial industry in North Adams and an unsustainable focus on MASS MoCA.

Even after a book and several documentaries, Wolff and Demme still have over 500 hours of footage that they hope to turn into another two documentary pieces. He believes that his continued focus on New Orleans post-Katrina is important not only because the city and its people are still rebuilding, but also because the process itself lays bare America’s true values, its strengths and weaknesses. His resulting work is engaging, informative and passionately exploratory.