Award-winning director Jonathan Demme is joining forces with PBS's Tavis Smiley for a unique weeklong television series about a post-Katrina New Orleans and the residents who decided to stay in their neighborhoods to rebuild. Gayle talks to Jonathan about the series, entitled Right to Return: New Home Movies from the Lower 9th Ward, and his aspirations for the project.
In 2006, Jonathan began making regular trips to New Orleans to film home movie memoirs with people who had moved back into homes and neighborhoods that were hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina.
He says he was a longtime fan of Tavis, who he collaborated with on another documentary about former president Jimmy Carter. Having shared details of his project with Tavis, Jonathan says he was asked to make five, 20-minute films to air on PBS. "For me to have the opportunity to help get any of their story out is a thrill," Jonathan says.
Jonathan says he felt it was critical to document the heroism, struggles and triumphs of the survivors of Katrina. Getting people to open up and share their stories, he says, was remarkably easy because of the extraordinary circumstances they had endured. "If you say, 'How's it going, what's up, what's on your mind?' They're going to come forth because they're burning with stuff," Jonathan says. In this way, rather than conducting formal interviews, Jonathan says he got more feedback and raw emotion from candid conversations with the people he met and filmed.
Eventually, Jonathan says his goal is to have five, two-to-three hour seasonal chapters of video that will make up a special DVD and will be available at libraries and universities across the country. He says he hopes his work will become a lasting testimony of the post-Katrina world. "[The DVD will be available] if anybody wants to know the heroism of these great Americans who dared to be pioneers and go back to these neighborhoods."