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'I'm Carolyn Parker': A Home is Not Just a House
September 19, 2012  | By Eric Gould  | 1 comment

POV's I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful is not simply another overview of the widespread governmental dysfunction that followed and compounded Hurricane Katrina. It's a close-up look at the catastrophe's effect on one woman, Carolyn Parker, and it successfully demonstrates how bureaucracy trickles down and has real effects on individuals.

Director Jonathan Demme, known for his compelling features (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), has also helmed a number of acclaimed documentaries (including a trilogy about rocker Neil Young).  He shot the 90-minute film, which premieres Thursday, Sept. 20, at 10 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), by himself, with a hand-held video recorder. The effect is a rough, unvarnished look at Parker’s world — her house, church and neighborhood — but it suits the film's scruffy background and the raw strength of the people rebuilding that community.

Parker, who at one point had been listed as dead in the confusion after the storm, is a forty-year resident of the Lower Ninth Ward. Well known for her activism and feistiness, she briefly became a national figure for publicly confronting former Mayor Ray Nagin and a committee of experts who, when discussing the future of the New Orleans neighborhoods destroyed by the storm, suggested razing them.

However bad the destruction looked — and Parker's house had been flooded to the roof — it was still home. For Parker, the idea of home is not about the quality of the real estate, but its people. "If you have a home, a place to stay — that's what it's all about," she says. "You welcome (guests), come on in — it don't have to be the prettiest or the best. It's you. And it's how you feel. It's your love, it's your worth."

Parker defied the "look and leave" policy that allowed people to visit their destroyed homes. Though her house was gutted of rotted drywall, its valuables looted, she camped in the house, refusing to leave.

That was just the beginning. It was the start of a four-year odyssey of rebuilding, living in a FEMA trailer behind the house while battling health problems, unscrupulous contractors and miles of red-tape delays.

As an intimate character study, Ms. Parker — an outspoken activist, retired chef and mother with an irreverent sense of humor — is eclectic and ideal. She recounts the neighborhood history and makes her secret pickle-juiced fried chicken in the tiny FEMA trailer kitchen.

And there’s also a great moment (below) when she tours her mother’s old neighborhood in nearby Backatown, an area that was all but leveled when the levees broke. She encounters an art installation done by the “Make It Right” organization, which put up house-sized pink blocks on empty lots to mark the fundraising progress they were making in their ongoing efforts to rebuild the neighborhood.

When she sees it, she’s even more resolute to be thankful that the frame of her home survived. Parker recalls that when she and her late husband bought the old house in 1970, he asked her why she wanted the old, broken-down structure. "Because it wants me," she replied. "All it needs is love. I can do that."

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