Aaron Walker went to New Orleans to make a music video and discovered a dying culture, the Mardi Gras Indians. These tribes have their own festival traditions, a powerful history and sensational musical roots. Walker changed his plans and began working on Bury The Hatchet, a documentary about three chiefs attempting to preserve their heritage. At first it's progress, in the form of Interstate 10, that threatens the community. Then the biggest threat seems to be simply the passage of time. And finally, Hurricane Katrina hits.
On the eve of Bury The Hatchet's Hot Docs screenings - Sunday (May 1) at 7 pm, and Tuesday (May 3) at 4:30 pm, both at Cumberland 3 - Walker talked to NOW about the inspiration for the movie and how the project kept changing.
How did you move from directing music videos to developing a doc about Mardi Gras Indians?
I was doing some music work for Tab Benoit, and Monk Boudreaux was involved in his management and showed up at the shoot in his Indian suit. I'd heard the lore about the Mardi Gras Indians finishing their suits at 6 am before they went out for the day, and I always thought that was so romantic and mysterious, so I asked if I could film him.
It was magical. That scene where he's getting up with the kids and getting dressed is in the film.
Then, when I was doing a video with blues singer Timothea, Alfred Doucette said he'd do a cameo. I didn't know he was a Mardi Gras Indian, but when I came to his house I saw his suit in the back room.
Even with all the footage documenting Katrina's destruction, the most powerful sequences in the film are those where the chiefs are sewing their own costumes.
That was what attracted me. I'm very interested in minute meditative details when something intricate and beautiful is being created. I love filming those little beads and the needles going into the canvas. I made Monk list all the canvases hewas using, and he thought I was nuts. I love to film actions like that - when people are in a small group and totally focused, it's very spiritual.
The movie begins as if the biggest threat to the Mardi Gras Indian community were the construction of Interstate 10 in the heart of the 'hood. But that's not the only big threat.
So many things are hitting this culture. Monk was still renting his house, and he commented that the house across the street was renting for a really high price and he was concerned that gentrification was going to drive him out. Then there are the uninterested youth who don't want to sew. They're hanging out on corners and playing video games. And now old age is another factor.
Alfred says he's making his last suit this year - his arthritis is too bad. It's called The Last Supper, and it's absolutely stunning. He now wants to teach kids and not do the sewing himself.
There's a shocking moment in the film when something terrible happens to Tootie Montana, one of your central subjects. How did you handle that?
I did all the camera work for that sequence. You're just shocked, like everyone else in that room. And you think, "He's gonna be okay, he's gonna be okay." For a split second I thought, out of respect, that I should turn the camera off, but then I knew I couldn't. You just go into autopilot.
Is there a future for the Mardi Gras Indian subculture?
When I asked that question, all the chiefs said they're going to be as strong as ever. And I thought, "I don't think so." But now, after Katrina, there are even more tribes, and many of the chiefs are 20 or 21 years old. There's a lot of new blood, and brass bands have suddenly sprung up all over the place.
Before Katrina, people took the city for granted. After Katrina, there was so much coverage. They were seeing the destruction, but they were also seeing what was lost. Then the TV show Treme came out. And so it's hip to be a Mardi Gras Indian.