Mardi Gras Indian doc 'Bury the Hatchet' builds a reputation of its own
Published: Saturday, April 23, 2011, 5:00 AM
New Orleans filmmaker Aaron Walker has proven that he "won't bow down," as the Mardi Gras Indians say in his stirring new documentary "Bury the Hatchet" (read movie review) -- but, despite his tempered demeanor, Walker can be excused if he does a little jumping for joy.
His film, examining New Orleans' Mardi Gras Indian culture -- a film that doesn't even have a distributor yet but which opened Friday (Aprill 22) for a weeklong run at the Chalmette Movies anyway -- has been collecting awards and positive notices since even before he finished it last fall.
First came a Grand Prize and Intangible Culture Award at England's Royal Anthropological Institute Festival of Ethnographic Film after a work-in-progress screening there in July 2009. In 2010, at October's New Orleans Film Festival, Walker was named Louisiana Filmmaker of the Year for the completed film.
And now, after being handed a slot at the prestigious Hot Docs documentary film festival, which unspools later this month in Toronto, one gets the feeling this promising little film could be on the verge of something big.
"I hope," Walker said this week. "I hope it's starting to roll and snowball. It got accepted in Hot Docs, and that's one of North America's most prestigious festivals. And literally the day after it was accepted, I was getting calls and emails from distribution agents, sales agents. A guy in France called me; he's got some festivals and he wanted to see a screener. You know, all these different other festivals -- instead of me bugging them, it was like 'Oh, send us a screener and we'll waive the fee.' "
But don't mistake all that to mean "Bury the Hatchet" is an overnight success story.
This is a film that took more than six years to make.
"I guess it was in '04," Walker said, recounting the origins of "Bury the Hatchet," which started as a 20-minute profile of Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles, whom Walker had met while working on a music video in which Boudreaux had a cameo.
Walker had long been fascinated by the sheer craftsmanship of what the Indians do -- the elaborate feathered and beaded costumes they spend all year constructing before showing them off in impromptu street parades on the city's back streets on Mardi Gras morning.
"I had this idea -- because you hear this story of how the Indians get up early in the morning and finish up their suits on Mardi Gras morning -- and I just asked (Boudreaux) if I could come film it," Walker said. "He was totally open and he let me right into his world. He was like, 'Be there at 5 a.m.,' which I was.
"My mother's a folk artist, and so I'm just fascinated with the sewing and the beadwork," Walker said. "That was such a mysterious culture that I was really, really interested in."
It wasn't long afterward that Walker met Big Chief Alfred Doucette of the Flaming Arrow Warriors -- who, coincidentally, had a cameo in another music video on which Walker was working. Again, the filmmaker asked if he could shoot video of Doucette working on his suit. Again, he got a yes.
The last piece of the puzzle was Victor Harris of the Fi Ya Ya, who took a more wary approach to the project than did Doucette and Boudreaux. "I went over there the first couple of times, he was like, "Why do you want to do this? What are you up to?' " Walker said.
Eventually, though, after spending time with Fi Ya Ya members and winning their trust, he gained the same kind of access he has with the other tribes.
"At that point, I was really thinking it would be 50 minutes, right under an hour -- kind of a 'P.O.V.,' PBS type of thing," Walker said. "But then, some more dramatic events happened."
First, the Indians' on-and-off butting of heads with the New Orleans Police Department flared, making headlines. Then the legendary Tootie Montana -- the biggest of the big chiefs -- dropped dead on camera while testifying before the City Council about the need for police to let the Indians do their thing.
And after that came a pivotal moment for Mardi Gras Indian culture and for everyone in New Orleans: Hurricane Katrina.
As the story developed, Walker -- who holds a master's degree in film from the University of New Orleans -- would leave behind his day job and focus on his new mission: to chronicle this quickly developing chapter in Mardi Gras Indian history.
"At a certain point, it just became what I did," he said. "Your life kind of gets wrapped in it. And I was really, really close with those guys, with the chiefs, we were just -- we still are -- just really good friends."
He would enlist help along the way: The pianist George Winston would contribute to the score. Jazz musician (and also a big chief) Donald Harrison would contribute songs to the film's layered soundtrack. Film editor Joe Bini would come on board as an editing consultant. An Australian company, Altaire Productions, would step up with the money needed to finish the project.
And the finished product? Walker says he just hopes it does justice to his new friends and their uniquely New Orleans tradition.
"What these guys are doing is important on so many levels," Walker said. "Artistically, I think they are creating work on a par with Picasso, except it's art you see on the street, not in a museum. And when you are lucky enough to see it, it's a spiritual experience. They are (also) giving something to children that so many other aspects of our society are not giving: a sense of history, a connection to their ancestors, which gives them a sense of self, purpose and spirituality. ... They are the community leaders in their neighborhoods, watching over the elderly neighbors and making sure the children have pencils and toilet paper for school.
"And it's all fragile. In the course of filming, I saw them take hits from so many different directions: the police, gentrification, violence among themselves, disinterested youth, lack of money to buy feathers, disaster. But they keep going. After Katrina, Doucette makes clear: 'This ain't no celebration -- this is our tradition.' They speak volumes not only of their own community, but across humanity, the strength to pick up and carry on doing what you think is important."
HAIL TO THE CHIEFS
What: The local theatrical run of "Bury the Hatchet," an award-winning documentary about New Orleans' Mardi Gras Indian tradition.
When: Screening daily at 1, 2:45 and 7 p.m., through Thursday (April 28). Director Aaron Walker will attend the 7 p.m. shows tonight (April 23) and Sunday (April 24), and discuss the film afterward.
Where: Chalmette Movies, 8700 W. Judge Perez Drive, Chalmette.
Tickets: Available at the box office.
Details: www.burythehatchetfilm.com , www.chalmettemovies.com .
Video: "Bury the Hatchet" video review
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