While HBO’s drama series Treme introduced TV audiences to the Mardi Gras Indians, director Aaron Walker’s portrait of three ‘Big Chiefs’ of New Orleans goes deeper into their traditions and what obstacles, including Hurricane Katrina, came their way.
Walker was introduced to the Mardi Gras Indians – African-Americans who honor the Native Americans who aided them during slavery by creating elaborate Native American-style costumes – when he was in New Orleans working on music videos in 2004.
The three men that Walker focused on, Big Chiefs Monk Boudreaux, Alfred Doucette and Victor Harris, are documented in the run up to Mardi Gras and Saint Joseph’s Day, where they sew their own brightly adorned costumes with beads and feathers.
Walker says that if Hurricane Katrina hadn’t impacted New Orleans, his documentary film would’ve been just a portrait of these three men. “Already the themes of their struggle had become very important in the film. Gentrification, old age, disinterested youth, are all things that they’re up against, [as well as] the Claiborne Interstate dissecting their neighborhood and the harm that did.”
Walker originally thought he’d end his film with the 2005 St. Joseph’s Night celebrations, during which the annual Mardi Gras Indians parade was halted by a confrontation with the New Orleans police department. But during a city council hearing about the incident, revered Big Chief Tootie Montana collapsed at the podium from a fatal heart attack, all captured on film.
“It was just one thing after another,” he says. “And of course, Katrina happened.”
The director himself evacuated a few days after Katrina and after about a week he began to track down his principle characters. One had been relocated to Texas, another to Alabama. Their reunions were filmed, as well as the men’s return to their devastated homes and the ruined costumes that took a year to make. The rebuilding of the chiefs’ New Orleans lives are part of the epilogue, which Walker says was shot recently.
The doc also includes a wealth of music, including contributions from the Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans bands, brass bands and rare tracks not released outside of New Orleans, as well as a score from pianist George Winston.
Hot Docs will be the first full viewing of Bury the Hatchet‘s final cut outside of New Orleans. A rough cut screening at the Royal Anthropological Institute of Ethnographic Film in England won the doc the Grand Prize and the Intangible Culture Award, while the premiere at the New Orleans Film Festival won the Best Louisiana Feature.
“[I hope audiences get] the importance and the realness of this culture,” says Walker. “A lot of oppressed cultures are very fragile and it’s important to get their stories out and preserved. Hopefully this can get some kind of support to keep themselves in existence.”
Currently the filmmaker doesn’t have a distributor for the film, and he says he has plans to visit other festivals. In addition to distribution, Walker hopes his film will help the youth of New Orleans.
“New Orleans is a rough place, our streets are broken and we don’t have hot water in city hall, so I think it’s easy for a kid to say ‘What can I do in this place?’” he says. “But seeing yourself in films like Bury the Hatchet or Treme and the attention we got after Katrina, [they can] see how the outside world values it and [it] says you really do have something special.”
Walker reports that there are a lot of younger Mardi Gras Indians now, with small tribes popping up including 18- and 19-year-old kids, and younger brass bands are emerging too.
“I was walking down the street the other day and I saw this 14-year-old kid who I’d seen about a year ago and I was kind of worried about him. He had a trumpet and said he was going to start a second line band,” Walker says. “I hope that this film, along with all the other attention New Orleans is getting, gives the young people incentive to keep it going. I hope it boosts their egos.”
Bury the Hatchet is a Cine-Marais and Altaire Productions film. Its last Hot Docs screening is today, May 3, at 4:30 p.m.