You previously directed Bayou Maharajah about the late, great New Orleans pianist James Booker. How come you wanted to do a film about dance?
When people talk about New Orleans and what’s great about it, it’s the food and the music and the architecture, but dance is never mentioned. But for me it’s such a crucial part of New Orleans and the experience here. There’s no gathering where there’s no dance. If you go see a show and there’s no dancing, you know the musicians must be off. And musicians will gage how well they play by how much people are dancing. Also, dancing is done by regular people, so it’s maybe not as privileged or taken as seriously, culturally, as other things.
Dance was getting left out. But making a film about dance is really making a film about New Orleanians. Everyone can dance, everyone has a body, and there’s not that hierarchy of body types that are valued. That just doesn’t exist in the same way here, and you see it played out on the dance floor. Ultimately, it’s not a film about dance, but a film about people. Dance is just the foot in the door. You’re not going to watch the film and walk away and know how to second line. But you might walk away with more understanding about the second line clubs and why they’re so crucially important to New Orleans.
Are you a dancer?
No, but I do feel that my dancing has gotten better while making this film. With Bayou Maharajah, I was definitely not going to learn how to play the piano, and listening to that much James Booker does not inspire one to start. But I do think I can shake that thing better than when I started the project. Enough late nights drinking gin and listening to TBC—you’re just going to pick it up.
Why is dance important in New Orleans?
There’s individual dance and Western, classical, hierarchical dance, and there’s couples’ dancing. But New Orleans has almost like group dancing—a group of individuals where everyone is doing their own thing and yet it’s working together as a group. Maybe if I was a dance scholar, I would know what to call that, but that’s been my observation. Nobody really cares if you’re on the beat or not because it’s not about you—it’s about us. A group identity through physical movement, and I think that’s gorgeous. Once you get that, it’s really freeing, because you know nobody’s judging you when you dance. They’re really only going to judge if you’re not dancing!
What is buckjumping, exactly? Is it a specific dance style?
It does refer to a specific kind of dancing here, but also to a mentality, which is why it became the title of the film. Buckjumping is second line dancing, basically—it’s foot work, what you see on Sunday afternoons. But the term is originally equestrian, from when a horse is trying to buck a rider. So it’s about bucking the police or bucking your parents—bucking in the sense of throwing off whatever oppression you’re feeling at that time. I’ve heard so many people describe the importance of second lines, or funerals, or block parties. For those couple of hours, you just need to forget your problems and dance. And it sounds flippant, but in a city with so much institutional racism and poverty, disease and murder, it’s not flippant—it’s an absolutely crucial mental health element. It’s literally the only avenue that people in New Orleans have to feel better about themselves and about our situation. ‘Let’s put on some music and dance!’ Also, you don’t need to have hiking shoes and drive to the mountains. You don’t need to have a kayak and go out to the woods. You don’t need to have 10 years of experience as a ballet dancer. All you need is a cousin with a trombone and you’re set. Plus what party here isn’t going to have music?
How far along are you with the shooting and editing?
I’m basically done. I’m now submitting to film festivals and trying to raise money. We made the film on basically nothing, but right now, there’s no way around it. You’ve got to have cash for things like color correction and sound mix and music licensing. Plus it costs money to submit to festivals, so we really need this final push to get it out there. Plus any money we raise beyond our goal will go towards bringing people who are in the film out on the road with us. Festivals will pay me to come, but this isn’t just Lily Keber making a film. I recognize, not being from here, that I’m not the right person to talk about why New Orleans culture is important. The film can speak for itself. I’d rather bring people from New Orleans who are in the film because New Orleanians are their own best ambassadors.
I understand Buckjumping poses a new set of challenges for you as a director compared to Bayou Maharajah?
When I’ve shown the film to people outside New Orleans there’s always this question of, ‘Why is this important?’—not exactly, because people are fascinated by what they’re seeing, but they’re not really sure what they’re seeing. Buckjumping is very immersive. You’re in the middle of the second line, you’re in the middle of the Muses parade. But there’s no voice-over, no text on screen, no narrator telling you what you should be thinking or feeling. That’s what makes a film stand up to multiple screenings and that’s what makes it art, but there are so many documentaries out there that just knock you upside the head with what you’re supposed to be taking away. Also, New Orleans is like that. People are like that. Everyone’s allowed their own interpretation and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but try telling that to film festivals. In America, you have to look a specific way. With film, you have to have a specific audience and one specific message, but for me that’s just so limiting. That’s not art!
So it’s been harder to market this movie?
Yes! It’s a dance film, but it’s not really about dance. It’s an anthropological film, but not meant for an anthropology audience. These are dancers who are not formally trained—and that’s awesome—but there’s nowhere else in North America where there would be enough non-trained dancers to make a film like this, so nobody’s ever seen a film like this. It’s a film about African-Americans, but not made by an African-American. It’s a film that’s super cinematic and visually beautiful, but it’s not a narrative. So it’s very difficult to know how to market it. It’s also a movie about joy, about black joy, and it’s a movie about the importance of black culture to America, but America’s not super interested in hearing that right now, or possibly ever. And again, there’s no narrator, there’s no host. You can’t watch this film while also texting. So it’s probably not going to be a great film for TV because the audience has to be actively engaged. So marketing this film—who knows… Meanwhile, I think America could really use a little joy. And that’s something New Orleans could really teach America right now. When politics are bad—go dance! When the economy is bad and it feels like there’s no way out—go dance! Throw a party. It’s literally how New Orleans has gotten through the last 300 years.
The Kickstarter for Buckjumping will run until Wednesday, March 14. Go to www.kickstarter.com/projects/521191680/buckjumping.