There’s no shortage of documentary films about New Orleans street culture, notably including Les Blank’s 1978 film “Always for Pleasure,” Royce Osborn’s “All on a Mardi Gras Day” and a host of post-Hurricane Katrina projects about the recovery and preservation of traditions involving Mardi Gras Indians, second lines, New Orleans music and more.
Director Lily Keber follows up “Bayou Maharajah,” her 2013 documentary about James Booker, with a film that touches on many New Orleans cultural traditions, all of them sharing an element of exuberant dancing. Much of it falls under the label of “buckjumping,” the funky freeform steps deployed in Social Aid and Pleasure Club (SAPC) parades and elsewhere.
Keber interviews many veteran musicians, SAPC club members and others. Rapper Mia X, aka Mia Young, describes the pleasures and release of music and dance, all while she cuts potatoes and prepares a boiling pot in the spare kitchen space of a neighborhood bar. “You know they say, ‘You have to laugh to keep from crying,’” she says. “You have to dance to keep from cutting up.” Mia X also shares her boiling recipe as she goes.
The festival screens more than 200 films across the city Oct. 17-25
What distinguishes the film is Keber’s camerawork and assembled cast of veterans of various cultural activities. She captures the dancing in the middle of the crowd, not from the sidelines, and often the film takes the viewer to the center of the action. After an opening montage of dancing in the streets, the film goes behind the scenes with the Nine Times SAPC as members make fans and get dressed to come out on the street wearing kilts, a new outfit for the group.
The film also delves into related dance traditions. Keber talks to Mardi Gras Indians, including Big Chief Irving “Honey” Banister, the dance team of Edna Karr High School as it prepares for Carnival parades, and bounce rappers as women show off their twerking skills. The film also captures the more somber sides of jazz funeral traditions, as DJ Jubilee maintains a benevolent society’s tomb, and Keber follows a funeral procession.
Much of this subject matter has been covered before, but Keber’s vantage point from the middle of the action and the comfort of the people talking to the camera that make the documentary come alive. It almost feels like an immersive experience.