Director Jonathan Demme introduces hurricane survivor Carolyn Parker

Wesley Stace, WAMFEST artist-in-residence, hosts a discussion with (from left) jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., film producer Daniel Wolff and director Jonathan Demme following a screening of Demme's documentary,  “I'm Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad and the Beautiful.” (Photos by Dan Landau)

Art documents life at FDU’s WAMFEST 2012

By Kenna Caprio

Carolyn Parker fought for five years following Hurricane Katrina to restore her home. She stayed in her house without power and water at first. She discovered her home had been looted at one point after the floods came. She and her daughter, Kyrah Julian, lived on their property in a FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailer for years. She trusted a contractor who eventually stole from her. She strove to preserve her church, which almost didn’t survive the aftermath of the storm. But slowly and surely, with volunteer assistance and through sheer perseverance, Parker and her family rebuilt their lives and house.

And Academy Award-winning filmmaker and director Jonathan Demme documented it all.

It’s a story that is even more troubling now — post-Hurricane Sandy — for those in the FDU community who enjoyed Demme’s “I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad and the Beautiful” documentary and discussion at WAMFEST on October 24.

One of the signature events of this season’s Word and Music Festival, Demme joined writer and “Carolyn Parker” producer Daniel Wolff, jazz saxophonist and “King of Nouveau Swing” Donald Harrison Jr., and WAMFEST host and artist-in-residence Wesley Stace (John Wesley Harding) for a conversation following the screening.

The project originally started “because Daniel and I were traumatized by what we saw in New Orleans after the flood and we had a longing to participate,” says Demme.

Without much of a plan, Demme and Wolff took off for the Gulf Coast. As the two men toured New Orleans post-Katrina, with a camera they didn’t exactly know how to use at first, they realized they had multiple stories to tell.

“Carolyn wanted us to film because she wanted people to understand what we’re up against,” Demme says of the struggles that the people of New Orleans — specifically the Lower Ninth Ward — still face.

(Above) Filmmakers Wolff (left) and Demme smile during the WAMFEST conversation.

And so, by focusing on a few individual accounts of agony and triumph, the two compiled footage to fashion into several different “portrait” films. The next documentary in the series centers on Harrison’s mother, Herreast. “It’s been such a joy to see what they have and will give to New Orleans,” says Harrison of Demme and Wolff. Harrison provided the soundtrack for Herreast’s story as he helped his mother rebuild, becoming a quick study in plumbing, framing and carpentry.

“The great excitement about documentary is all you know is you care about the people and it’s intense,” says Demme. “Life tells the story; the people tell the story.”

“Carolyn Parker” screened at the Venice, Toronto, Milan, Woodstock and London film festivals and aired on PBS in September 2012. “It’s really a movie about the friendship between the filmmakers and the subjects,” says Wolff. “It’s a dialogue and she invited us deeper and deeper in.”

This season’s WAMFEST included appearances by Harrison and his band, graphic historian Chip Kidd, student and faculty performers, and the Readin’ N Rhythm’s Move on Up Showcase. The series closed with a return appearance by three-time U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, who performed POEMJAZZ with bassist Ben Allison, guitarist Dave Stryker and saxophonist Steve Slagle.

The Words and Music Festival, hosted by FDU’s Becton College and the Creative Writing Program, is a celebration and exploration of the arts. Events bring together artists from various fields for conversations, collaborations, and performances. Past guests include Bruce Springsteen, Robert Pinsky, Josh Ritter and Rosanne Cash.

For more, visit the WAMFEST blog or contact David Daniel, director of the Creative Writing BA program and director of WAMFEST, at

Feature Story from the FDU Newsroom

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