Having grown up within Louisiana my entire life, I can attest to the fact that it truly holds a culture unlike anywhere else. A rich history that dates back to Native American tribes mingling with the French settlers and then finally the general Americanism of the neighboring states helping to create a strange brew of ideologies that is gathered from multiple walks of life. Growing up just an hour down the road from New Orleans myself, reaching my late teens I had grown tired of all the Mardi Gras nonsense that there is to be had within our neck of the woods. To be honest it all seemed like a rather ridiculous reason for adults to abandon their children and continually stay drunk over the course of several weekends. However, when one gets over their adolescence they soon realize that in life its a whole lot easier to just ignore the stupidity of others and be free to have fun on occasion. Reaching that state of maturity, I’ve grown to respect Mardi Gras at least a little more as a cultural export that sets my state apart from any other. Bury the Hatchet is a documentary that captures the best qualities of Mardi Gras in general and not simply the tourist-trap ridiculousness that the out-of-town crowd gets to see every year. This is a film that demonstrates the heart of New Orleans and expresses a side of Louisiana’s culture that rarely gets talked about.
Bury the Hatchet follows a very distinct group of New Orleans natives before Mardi Gras, before Hurricane Katrina, during the struggling months after Katrina and finally several years after the fact. The group in question are Mardi Gras Indians, a subculture within New Orleans made up of African Americans who have taken up a tradition that goes back to the time of slavery. Every year these Mardi Gras Indians fashion their own Indian costumes out of feathers, sequins, jewelry and whatever majestic items that they can find. The object isn’t to create costumes that directly reflect Native American uniforms from days gone by, but instead create something "pretty" and generally one-up the other tribes within New Orleans. We follow several of the "Chiefs" as they get ready for the coming season and we learn the rich history of this tradition as well as see how incredibly difficult it is to fashion a ten foot crown of feathers.
Louisiana has a strange culture to it that separates it from all others. Truly, up until recently I would say that local interest in cinema and filmmaking within louisiana has been relatively dead. With the recent influx of Hollywood productions coming to our state, local interest certainly seems to be heating up. Director Aaron Walker brings a dose of New Orleans to the forefront is rarely seen outside of local WDSU (the local NBC affiliate within the New Orleans area) programming, and shows more heart and rich tradition than any other representation of Mardi Gras I have ever seen. The history that is caught on camera within Aaron Walker’s film is jaw dropping for a Louisiana native but it is also astonishing for those who are truly looking to get a taste for what this state has to offer. The older footage and photographs from Mardi Gras years gone by, such as those that show Claiborne Avenue as a park instead of the massive overhead interstate that it is today, show a side of New Orleans that I know best but in a completely different light. When we see these photographs that date back to the early 1900’s, we can truly begin to understand the length and endurance of these traditions. The weeks and months shown where these Big Chiefs laboriously work on their costumes also shows the dedication that they have for this culture. In a world where this "holiday" has become nothing more than an excuse for tourists to get sloppily drunk and disrobe in public, here are men who have crafted true meaning out of what I used to consider a fake-holiday of sorts.
From a technical standpoint, Bury the Hatchet is well made, there’s no getting past that. Without using any voiceover narration (a device that can often weaken a product), Aaron Walker is able to tell a powerful story that doesn’t beat one over the head with sentimentality. His use of animation throughout gives the film a slick polish that will endear it to casual film fans who are slightly more used to Hollywood productions or documentaries with much more money behind them. Walker’s use of pacing is also quite extraordinary as he manages to tell a story that is massive in its scope, but he does so within a tight 86 minutes. There are few moments throughout where we enter into any form of dull information, but instead we are offered a large cast of amazing characters that could have only been made within this very specific climate. Although one wishes that more time could have been spent with these characters, particularly during the rebuilding process after Hurricane Katrina which is only given a small amount of time within the film, but overall I think the filmmaker gets across specifically what he wanted to say.
A strong, strong feature film and a promise from this filmmaker in terms of future quality productions, but not only that it is a very important piece of history for Louisiana. A really great piece of cinema that will hopefully bring a lot of light to the Mardi Gras Indians and then provide even larger celebrations for them in the future. Definitely give this one a spin if you run into it. You can read more about the movie via the official website at: http://www.burythehatchetfilm.com