Lily Keber is the director of Bayou Maharajah, the 2014 LEH Documentary Film of the Year. Keber and others will be honored on March 29th at the Humanities Awards in New Orleans. (Click here for tickets) We spoke with her about pianist James Booker and filmmaking in New Orleans.
LEH: You had to love Booker to begin this project. Given what you know about him after years of working on this film, how has your understanding of the man and his music changed?
Lily Keber: To be honest, I knew very little about Booker when I began. I think in a way that helped the process because it allowed me to explore his story with open eyes. People have very varied opinions on Booker– even those who knew him personally. So my strategy in making the film was to talk to as many different people as possible and get as many different viewpoints as possible. Then, after gathering those divergent impressions, I tried to coalesce them into a unified portrait of the man as I understood him. It was hard, I won’t lie. I always say that the only truth you can derive from James Booker comes from him music. Every detail of his life and personality can be debated. But the music is Rock Solid Truth.
LEH: Along with Booker’s story, the film conveys a sense of New Orleans and the music scene of the 1960’s and ’70’s. What was different about the time in the city?
Keber: I can’t answer that question with authority, as I wasn’t around back then. But I do get the sense from those I’ve talked to that New Orleans was a different city in the 60’s and 70’s than it is now. The music and the culture was more itself. In his book, Dr. John talks about how Jim Garrison destroyed the French Quarter in the 60’s. Garrison was trying to clear out the pimps and drugs, but instead managed to destroy the dense network of musicians and music clubs and caused an expatriation of that culture to cities where they could find work.
I also get the sense that because there was more money and more population in the city, there was less of a pressing need to capitalize the culture. There was just starting to be a renewed interest in these indigenous forms—both Jazz Fest and Tipitina’s were founded around this time to inspire people to appreciate the older, overlooked generations of musicians—but I get the feeling that there was an ease to living in New Orleans in the 70’s. Rent was cheap, food and booze easy to come by, more of a neighborhood-y, how-ya-mama vibe. People describe the French Quarter as being so much more residential then, a haven for the bohemian rejects of the rest of the country. I think of that with a tinge of regret as I walk around today’s FQ and see the condos and parking garages and caricatures of Louisiana culture dangling from every window for the tourist’s consumption.
LEH: Part of the film’s beauty comes from the archival footage—street scenes, parades, houses. What was the process for finding this footage, and choosing what went into the film?
Keber: Finding the archival footage of New Orleans was the hardest part of assembling this film. I’m unclear on why so little of this footage exists— the shift from film to video that happened in the 70’s? Our bad weather? New Orleans’ general lack of interest in self-preservation?—but the fact is that there’s just not a lot of this stuff out there. We scoured YouTube and the archives, talked to filmmakers who were around back then, posted notices on facebook, and advertised. The process of choosing what to include in the film was then, of course, limited to what we had access to. But sometimes limitations like that are good. They force you to examine your creative decisions very closely and to explore alternative possibilities more broadlythan you might otherwise.
LEH: What’s been the response from Booker’s family?
Keber: I think Booker’s family has enjoyed seeing this resurgence of interest in his work. Though he’s always had a dedicated fan base, the film has help bring Booker’s music to new circles of people. My ultimate hope, of course, is that Bayou Maharajah will prompt the release of new albums and help uncover more unknown recordings.
LEH: Bayou Maharajah took home awards at several festivals, including the 2013 New Orleans Film Festival. What’s next for you?
Keber: Well unfortunately, I’m not really done with this one yet! I still have some massive fundraising to do before the film can be publicly released, so I can’t let go of Bayou Maharajah just yet. In the meantime, I’m helping other filmmakers get their projects off the ground. Making a feature film is an implausible task. But if we can apply our New Orleans values of collaboration and support and humor and shared meals, we can at least make it an enjoyably implausible task.
Click here to learn more about Bayou Maharajah and make a donation to support the film’s public release.