How quickly things can move in New Orleans. In a handful of years, Lily Keber went from anonymous transplant bartending long nights in the Bywater to being on the receiving end of a standing ovation in a packed Orpheum Theater.
More impressive than looking at Keber’s filmmaking journey on paper is seeing how she did it. With boundless compassion, she’s fueled by a genuine fascination for the rich culture she encountered in the city and the people who carry it. This passion first materialized in 2013 with Keber’s debut documentary, the James Booker story she told in Bayou Maharajah. But if her employment of classic documentary form made for a tasteful account of the incredibly valuable landmark in New Orleans music, her second effort, Buckjumping, is a wildly different beast.
The film, which premiered at the New Orleans Film Festival on October 21, 2018, is a dense and organic testimony of the ever-so diverse ways the people of this city find to live their lives. Through the prism of dance as an incarnation of numerous facets of Black culture in New Orleans, Keber manages to tell a bigger story of struggle, acceptance, joy, solidarity, youth, pride and tradition.
As a matter of fact, the director is not really the one telling the story here. Buckjumping doesn’t follow a particular narrative nor does it comport a clear discourse. Withdrawing herself from the narration, Keber surrenders all powers of expression to the people she sought. Whether taking you inside the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs preparing for second lines, to high-school band practices behind the Mardi Gras parades, or in the depths of the night in bounce clubs, the film finds incredible strength and meaning in how empowered the cultural practitioners find themselves in telling their own stories.
Elevated by ninja-like cinematography led by New Orleans’ finest, Zac Manuel, Buckjumping achieves a level of proximity and intimacy without tapping into voyeurism that shatters all boundaries and takes us so close to the very soul of the city that its pulse stays palpable all throughout. It’s an invitation to witness the sheer humanity embedded in the celebration of life and death through dancing, to which we are so very privileged to be exposed.
In just over an hour, the film travels across Black communities and traditions, big or small, funny or sad, always vibrant. Always powerful. The culture bearers show up in numbers, members of the Nine Time Social Aid and Pleasure Club, DJ Jubilee, drag king Hustler Williams, bounce artist Hasizzle, Mardi Gras Indian Irving “Honey”Banister and many others. According to each, dancing is approached as a celebration, a release, a custom, a means of grieving, an act of resistance.
As Keber pointed out after the premiere screening, it was nothing short of fitting for the film to be revealed at the Orpheum Theater, home of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, as the city’s highest form of art belongs in the streets.