POV: Can you describe I’m Carolyn Parker for someone who has not seen it?
Jonathan Demme: I would describe it first and foremost as the introduction of an extraordinary screen presence, because that was the aspect of Carolyn that drove us more than anything to go ahead and cut a film out of the hundreds of hours that we spent with her over the course of six years. It’s also for me, a story about an ordinary person under extraordinary circumstances, an ordinary person faced with an extraordinary challenge. That’s always a great story. David and Goliath is one of the originals, and here truly you have a woman in her 60s, her home has been flooded, submerged under water, she’s getting minimal assistance and major kind of harassment from state, federal, local governments and she has a burning desire to rebuild and reclaim her home. It’s an amazing story and it takes an amazing person — not an ordinary person — it takes an amazing person I think to actually set their mind to doing this and then follow through. It took five and a half years for Carolyn to see her dream come true. I abandoned hope of her getting back in the house after about three years. She didn’t. She got back in. That was inspiring to me.
POV: Can you describe that moment when you realized this is not just an interesting person but there’s a story here which I can get delve into? When did you realize that?
Demme: We first went down to New Orleans about six months after the floods that followed Katrina. I had heard about a small but mighty group of scattered people who were defying the warnings to not go back — that these neighborhoods will be razed, they will be leveled and they will become green space. They will maybe one day become condominiums but they’re not going to be the neighborhoods anymore. Yet, there were people who went rushing back in to say “No, we’re here, and even if we’re going to live in our gutted house or in a formaldehyde stinking FEMA trailer we’re here, we refuse to leave, we have a right to return and we’re exercising it.” So Daniel Wolff and I were very moved and intrigued by hearing about these people. We got the names of a few of them and we were talking about rebuilding houses but we hadn’t really been in any of them yet. When we entered Carolyn’s house, and I walked in with the camera rolling, it never turned off. You can hear me say in the soundtrack at a certain point, “Are you living here?” And she goes “Yes, that’s right.” with her boundless optimism and good naturedness. The next time we went down, I had realized that she had to be somebody we would stick with for two reasons. One, because she was so marvelous. Another because her challenge seemed greater than anybody else’s challenge— actually able to get back in there. I wanted to make her understand exactly what I was hoping for from her. She had her FEMA trailer, so we sat down in it and I said, “I would like to keep coming back here at least every three months until you’re back in your house, so there can be a portrait of one person amongst others having this experience. It also gives us a chance to show the changing visual ecology of your neighborhood at the same time.” She said, “Well, since I last saw you the wires have got…” and she just launched right in. In other words, it was a given that we’d be welcome every time we came back. We always were welcome. I didn’t imagine when we had that sit down three months after our first visit — I never imagined that it would take five and a half years to get back in the house. I didn’t realize the commitment I was making anymore than she did.
POV: That first scene where you walk into the house, her brother is there and he’s eating fish and he welcomes you, and even in the midst of that devastation there’s a feeling that this is home. Was that something that was pervasive in the neighborhood or was that something in particular to Carolyn?
Demme: That was very particular. We went into other buildings that weren’t being lived-in yet and we met some six other residents of the Holy Cross neighborhood there that we got to know quite well. Carolyn just drew us — she got the lion’s share of our attention very quickly because she is such a great storyteller. When you do a portrait documentary, one way of looking at it is that you’re directing a documentary, the author of which is the person you’re talking to. I never asked her questions. I showed up and I had a sense that Carolyn knew the story that she wanted to tell. She knew what was important to share for the cameras. Every time we went back, and at first I think she was a little surprised to see us come back, she started revealing more and more about her life — about her childhood in the segregated South, about coming of age as a teenager during the civil rights movement and the house, in a funny way, her efforts to get back in the house for me kind of took a little bit of a backseat because now here’s this extraordinary portrait of a great person that we’re hearing, and a person who personifies a whole segment of American history with a special focus on segregation and a movement away from segregation. One of the things I found very poignant about Carolyn and also very inspiring was that she’s a woman who as a child born into segregation participates in the civil rights movement with the NAACP, helps achieve massive social change, goes to work in an industry and as a black woman achieves notoriety. She’s on the job for 30 years, she’s highly respected person in that community. With the arc of this woman’s life, to now at this age in her 60s, to have to do battle with the State of Louisiana, the City of New Orleans, the United States of America in order to get back into her house, this is just not right. But she did it. That’s the thing that’s so amazing. She actually went back to the barricades and won.
POV: That notion of justice, of social justice, seems to be a pretty strong theme in your documentary work. Cousin Bobby,The Agronomist, the Jimmy Carter film and now the story of the Lower Ninth Ward, there are these recurring people that you focus on who take on social justice as part of their central driving force. Is that coincidental? Is that something that you have sought out? Or is it just something that interests you?
Demme: Well, one thing that these films like I’m Carolyn Parker and Cousin Bobby and Man From Plains, and I guess The Agronomist too, have in common is that I’m inspired by these people. These are all people who take it as a given that if we live in a democracy, in Jean Dominique’s case if we live in a country that’s moving towards democracy, then we have to embody that spirit. These are people who connect with the profundity of that notion, of living free, living in a democratic society, freedom of speech, all these things and they put that into practice where lots of us don’t. Hearing these people, hearing Jimmy Carter talk about the struggle for Palestinian statehood, and hearing Jean Dominique talk about you know the freedom of press, and Carolyn Parker saying “We deserve to get back in our homes, we’ve been forgotten down here in the Ninth Ward and we refuse to be forgotten,” — when I see that, it connectswith all this stuff that I was brainwashed with in elementary school — descriptions of America as a government of the people, for the people, of everybody has the right to this and that. It really quickens my pulse and as a filmmaker. I feel like if I’m this excited by what this person has to say, surely there are others who will agree. I’m not into objective documentary filmmaking I’m afraid. I’m not into balance. I’m into portraiture and trying to capture what it is about this person that makes them, in my view, a great person.
POV: So you spend five plus years with the character, with Carolyn, in her life, becoming her friend. What is your ethical responsibility to someone who has become part of your life, who you also want to engage a broader audience with? You have multiple obligations there it seems to me both to respect her but engage your audience. How do you reconcile that?
Demme: My job is to capture, I think as best possible, the essence of this person and, to put it even more specifically, would be to have the film make the statement that Carolyn would make. It’s the same thing with Neil Young, “Ohio,” singing about the murder of four American kids by the National Guard. Neil is feeling it a 100%. He is inhabiting the character of the killer in “Down By The River,” and he’s passionately telling the story about the four kids slain at Kent State, Ohio. So now I say, “Okay so it’s my job to cinematically convey his passion as best as possible.” So that means close-ups so we can see him, but also with ‘Ohio,’ asking do people even know about Kent State today? So the next thing is getting archival footage and visualizing what he’s singing about. And the more we can cinematically support Neil in his great performance, the more we’re doing our job and we’re now honoring what this song means to him. With Carolyn Parker, we have to show Carolyn’s neighborhood, because she cares so much about the neighborhood. We have to help visualize as best we can, the story she’s telling, what she’s passionate about. I hope people understand that this is what Carolyn thinks and this is what Carolyn feels and if her statistics aren’t exactly right, she feels that those are the statistics. To her, that’s what it is. You can go ahead and do, go fact check if you want to, but, I’m just not interested and I don’t think the audience is interested in second-guessing what Carolyn Parker has to say. I hope they’re going to go along for the ride and literally fall in love with this woman. That’s the obligation to the audience — to help that happen by honoring Carolyn’s story.
POV: Can you talk about your approach to documentary, your approach to performance pieces, and your approach to narrative pieces? How are they similar, how are they different?
Demme: Music films are great, but they can never compete with a live performance. Live music is what it is. It’s the whole point. You experience it in the moment. When we go to a concert, we do our own kind of zooming in on things. What we don’t do is cut a lot. So with the music performance films, one rule going in for me is try not to cut. Try not to interrupt. Trust the artist, trust the music. Give a privileged view that you can’t get at a live performance. I also feel with the dramatic films, in a way it’s the same thing. Tou want the audience to feel what it’s like to be there, in the room, with these characters. So that’s why I tend to really like these shots that pull the look very close to the lens, even into the lens sometimes. It’s a funny thing with documentary films — you want them to feel as entertaining and as gripping as a fictional film. With a fictional film you want it to feel as realistic as a documentary film. I don’t know quite how to combine those two things, so music becomes one way that doing that. I like to work with music fairly aggressively in documentaries. And I like to use dramatic underscoring the same way we do with the fiction films. I love the presence of music on the soundtracks or in front of the camera. So music’s another big unifier for me I guess.
POV: On the use of the music in the documentary, are you looking at it to underscore emotion, to heighten tension?
Demme: I think music is just a wonderful ingredient that helps us understand a scene better. And certainly you can overuse music, and you can use the wrong music. I probably have been guilty of these things over time. But if you use music correctly as a friend of the theme, a friend of the narrative, ou can lend some terrific connective tissue to a film. Zafir Tawil who was the composer on I’m Carolyn Parker was faced with a special challenge because at first we put our temp music and we kind of were drawing upon New Orleans idioms because New Orleans is a great music city. But it was weird because whenever we had New Orleans music, it seemed to ghettoize the story. So Zafir’s mission was to bring a global feel to the score. He used very nontraditional instruments sometimes. He was playing with ouds and special instruments from you know his native Palestine. His players came in and actually there was a lot of Middle Eastern musicians. There were players from Iraq and Syria bringing their indigenous instruments with them. It just seemed to fit so perfectly. And it helped put Carolyn subliminally I hope, on a world stage, not just a Lower Ninth Ward stage.
POV: What has the reaction been from international audiences?
Demme: I was a little bit concerned, because of the phrase Katrina fatigue. It’s a cultural thing that we as Americans, at a certain point, we got fatigued hearing about Katrina. Poor us. You know? So then there’s a question of, is there Katrina fatigue with films? Honestly I don’t think so, I think it depends on the film. I don’t think there’s nearly enough films and books about Katrina. This was the defining American epic experience thus far in the 21st Century. Not since the abolition of slavery has a focus come on to a bad situation, a situation that existed in New Orleans before the floods and was really brought into sharp release after the floods: why aren’t these people being helped? This notion of home travels like crazy. Even as the flood itself, in a funny way, is secondary to I’m Carolyn Parker, the floods created the situation that we then started filming, it’s this struggle against sort of indomitable odds and this notion that everybody is entitled to a home that comes through. It’s one of the most basic human rights of all, so people get it, and people are being disenfranchised in many ways all over the world and in this country. You can lose your home to a flood or to a bank foreclosure. Whatever it is, it’s horrifying.
POV: What do you think of the impact that film can make in the world? What impact would you like this film to have?
Demme: I know in 1966 I went to see a film at the New York Film Festival that was called Far From Vietnam. It was a five or six segment piece done by different filmmakers around the theme of the Vietnam War. My feelings about Vietnam when I went into the room were those of being terrified of being drafted. I was a product of American films and American television, so patriotism was my mindset, but I was afraid to go to war. I saw this segment of Far From Vietnam that was directed by Alain Resnais. And it was a 20-minute piece and it’s a monologue by Yves Montand pacing around his study in his Paris apartment talking to Simone Signoret about this tremendous conflict he was going through, because he had always loved America and Americans because when the Germans had occupied and oppressed France, it was the Americans who came to liberate the French. And as a child he remembered that and he’s grown up with this fierce love for America. But now that he sees what’s happening in Vietnam, even through the lens of French colonialism that predated the American invasion of Vietnam, he felt that the Americans had become the Nazis of Vietnam. And you know what, I came out of that movie theatre and a week later I was down in Washington, DC at the barricades, protesting the war in Vietnam. So I know that a film can change the way one person feels about things. I hope and I’m confident that there will be those who see I’m Carolyn Parker and be very inspired by this person’s tenacity, wisdom, determination, spirituality. Her harnessing of humor as a fuel to fortify these other dimensions. I feel that here and there some people are going to be, be impacted in a very, very positive way by Carolyn Parker.