Lily Keber’s filmmaking journey began with an innate desire to make art that started conversations with people whose stories needed to be told. And she’s done just that—from teaching at the Appalachian community arts collective Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky and co-founding New Orleans Video Voices (a women-led media collective dedicated to expanding media literacy across the Gulf Coast), to her most lauded work to date: telling the dazzling story of the New Orleans pianist virtuoso, James Booker in her feature-length documentary Bayou Maharajah. I caught up with Lily to talk about the lessons she’s learned, her current work, and her thoughts on an ever-changing New Orleans.
I know you’re in France right now; tell us about what you’re doing.
Lily Keber: I’m actually in France on a job. But I’m taking the opportunity to expand my networks in the outside film world. We have an incredible group of filmmakers here in Louisiana, but I don’t feel that there’s much contact between us and everyone else. And I find that people around the world are fascinated by Louisiana culture and politics and always want to know more. So I’m trying to start conversations with directors and producers in other countries and strengthen these international ties.
Bayou Maharajah is finally out on a number of distribution platforms and is available for purchase!
LK: Yes! The film is now available for streaming on iTunes, Amazon and VHX. On VHX, you can also access an additional 55 minutes of interview and extra footage. That’s only in North America, though. The film will be available in the rest of the world and on DVD later this summer.
You’ve spent so long in close thought about James Booker. Any new insights after these years of work?
LK: Well, the insights I’ve gained are probably not new to anyone else. I knew so little about Booker when I started. For me, one big oversight is James Booker’s lyrics. I find them very personal, very lyrical and really the best peek into how Booker might have seen the world. But I find that most people don’t pay much attention to them. Maybe they don’t get the allusions or don’t understand what he’s talking about. But instead of approaching his lyrics as dense referential poetry, people tend to think it’s just the stoned ravings of a mad man. I don’t see it this way.
Have your favorite pieces of Booker repertoire changed over time?
LK: Right now I really love the “Rachmaninov/Taste Of Honey” medley recorded live on air at Jazz City Studios. It’s such a distinct pairing. Who else in the whole history of the piano has ever thought of putting those two songs together? It’s so Booker, so emotional, so original. It’s dark and joyous at the same time. It’s a song that’s so dense and intense that I find I can’t listen to it with anyone else in the room. I can’t stand it when people talk during that song!
Tell us about some of the highs and lows of the Bayou Maharajah production. They were such long, intensely personal and pivotal years for you as a filmmaker.
LK: Where to begin? It took me three years to make the film, then another three years to release it. The high points were, of course, the people I met along the way. I met all my heroes. I got to go fishing with Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), got to dine with Allen Toussaint, asked Irma Thomas to sign my records. And then there were the incredible people who knew and loved Booker. People like Ron Cuccia with his silky sweet voice and Helga Pfund who hosted Booker in Germany and Cosimo Matassa who was hanging out answering phones above Matassa’s grocery store in the Quarter and welcomed me upstairs to do an interview. And the hundreds of people who supported me and encouraged me over the years. Sometimes I’d go off to raise money and try to pitch the project and would get so discouraged. But inevitably, I’d get back to New Orleans and run into someone who would tell me how much Booker meant to them and thank me for making this film. It was really the little encounters like that that kept me going.
Many of your fans (yes, you’ve got a lot of fans now!) might not know that you did a lot of work producing social justice-oriented shorts, teaching and conducting workshops prior to the Booker film.
LK: [laughs] Yes. I’m self-taught as a filmmaker, so all of my projects have been learning lessons. I was really proud that my short film Hutto: America’s Family Prison was used nationally to try to stem the tide of immigrant detention during the Bush years. It’s not high art, but it was a useful and necessary tool in that fight. And I’m really proud of the community media trainings I’ve done. Teaching is one of the greatest things in the world. I think that we need a lot more of that in New Orleans, of equipping people with the tools necessary to tell their own stories in their own words.
Your new film is about dance. Tell us about it.
LK: Yes! I’m starting post-production on a documentary about dance styles in New Orleans. It’s by no means exhaustive, but rather is a profile of several different communities who dance. Second line, bounce, drag, high school dance teams, zydeco, church, Mardi Gras Indians—the list goes on and on. It’s going to be a very cinematic film and high energy and fun. And hopefully will be a faithful portrait of something I find fundamental and core to New Orleans. That indelible spirit, that humor, that creative drive, that generosity, that spirituality that makes up the New Orleans I know.
Thoughts on the film racket in general these days? Locally and otherwise?
LK: It sucks. That’s the long and the short of it. It’s a tough business, there’s never much money, the government has no interest in the types of cultural, artistic documentaries and features being made in Louisiana. Our state government’s interest in film is strictly business. They have no interest in culture and no interest in helping people in Louisiana make films. They are interested in luring people from out of state here to spend dollars. The great irony for me is that one day the oil industry will be gone, the fishing industry will be gone, the film tax credits will be gone. But what will still remain? Our arts and our culture and our music. These are the things that make Louisiana so distinct. If the government wasn’t so desperate to make a dollar today, they’d be investing in this stuff so it will blossom into an actual long term local industry that will sustain us into the future.
I know you worked on Beyoncé’s latest projects filmed in New Orleans. There was, as most people know by now, much controversy about a supposed lack of pay, cultural appropriation, and on and on. As much as these pieces were loved they were also vilified by a number of critics.
LK: Yes, I worked on both “Formation” and “Lemonade.” I can only speak to my own personal experience: it was a great experience and despite any rumors, I was fully compensated and treated respectfully throughout the process. And it was a great opportunity to shine some light on some communities I’ve been profiling for Buckjumping, my new dance documentary. I really love both those projects and am honored that I got the chance to take part. I have zero complaints.
Beyoncé’s work has gotten caught up in a much larger conversation about outside cultural appropriation, a topic that’s always at the forefront of conversations in New Orleans about art and post-Katrina change. From the New York Times travel articles to kale-gate and Beyoncé.
LK: [laughs] That question could be a panel. That question could be a multi-part series. Whether it’s VICE or AL-Jazeera or Fox News or me, there’s no question that there’s a lot of cultural documentation going on. Some of it is supportive, some of it is exploitative. I think we need to do a better job of openly discussing this stuff so we can start to come to a collective understanding of what our expectations are both for the production practices and for the final media. Take the example of compensation. As a journalist, I can’t ethically compensate the people I film. But as a compassionate person and a neighbor, I can’t ethically not compensate people, especially if I stand to profit from the film. That said, I have an ice cube’s chance in hell of ever seeing a profit off these films. So as a producer, I can’t afford to pay people because I have literally no money in the bank. It’s complex and important. And it’s something we as a community absolutely need to talk about more.
For more on Bayou Maharajah and Lily Keber’s other projects, check out bayoumaharajah.com and lilykeber.com