Oscar-winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme didn’t know what he was going to do with 200 hours of footage of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, but he knew the images told compelling stories about what happened when the floodwaters receded.
Demme focused on residents of the devastated Lower 9th Ward, following their journeys for more than a year after the hurricane. The more time he spent in the neighborhood, “the more the enormity started to emerge,” he said. “I realized, this is what America needs to know about.”
The result is “Right to Return: New Home Movies from the Lower 9th Ward,” to be presented on Tavis Smiley’s late-night PBS program for five nights beginning Monday.
The profiles, including interviews on life in the area taped as recently as this month, chart efforts of the impoverished, predominantly black residents to reclaim their homes and rebuild shattered lives.
“We came a long way, but we have a lot more to do,” said 60-year-old Carolyn Parker, whose home was inundated by 10 feet of water when Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005. She has been living in a federally issued trailer since June 2006.
About 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded by Katrina, and many neighborhoods, such as the Lower 9th Ward, have been slow to recover. Only about 255,000 of the city’s pre-storm population of 455,000 have returned. Only a handful of Parker’s neighbors have returned and many homes look untouched since the hurricane.
With the help of her 21-year-old daughter and a priest, Parker gutted and cleaned her house. Progress, however, has stopped there. The front of the home, which she has owned since 1970, still bears the signature paint marks left on homes by rescuers. Interior studs and beams remain exposed. An orange extension cord running from a temporary electric outlet in her yard runs a fan, because the house is not yet wired.
‘The story still is not over’Smiley, a native of Gulfport, Miss., said he is dismayed by the slow pace of recovery in New Orleans compared to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“I’m hopeful that once people get a chance to see this, they will be reminded that the story is still not over,” he said.
Among those profiled in the series are Herreast Harrison, whose long-dead husband, Donald Harrison Sr., had been chief of one of the traditional Mardi Gras Indian troupes; Melvin Jones, a New Orleans pastor who runs a ministry for homeless men; and Robert Green Sr., who lost his mother and granddaughter to Katrina.
Several documentaries covered the immediate aftermath of the storm — among them Spike Lee’s “When The Levees Broke.”
Demme’s work carries forward an examination of the struggle to rebuild New Orleans, which he says is important “in the same way that the horrendous human tragedy of 9/11 has been and continues to be so very well documented.”
Winner of a best-director Oscar for the 1991 film “Silence of the Lambs,” Demme’s credits also include the feature films “Beloved” and “Philadelphia,” a Haiti documentary, and portrait films on Nelson Mandela and Robert Castle.
Demme, who lives in Nyack, N.Y., visited New Orleans numerous times at his own expense to film the series. He said many Americans have been underexposed to the plight of people trying to return to the city.
“Once the water subsided and the imagery wasn’t fresh anymore, we stopped knowing what’s going on down here,” he said.
“The hurricane, the floods got our attention. The big question is, ‘Then what happened?”’