A Dance of Liberation

Lily Keber’s upcoming, feature-length documentary, “Buckjumping,” will take filmgoers deep into more than a half dozen New Orleans neighborhoods, where second-line parades boost the spirits and bring communities together in a way that happens nowhere else.

Film Directed by Lily Keber | Still Photographs by Pableaux Johnson

 The Oxford English Dictionary defines “buckjumping” as “a rodeo event in which a rider attempts to stay in the saddle of a bucking horse.”

The Pigeon Town Steppers, one of New Orleans’ many community-based social aid and pleasure clubs, would define buckjumping differently. They would tell you it’s the dance style associated with the city’s second line parades and that without it, New Orleans would not be New Orleans.

Lily Keber, who for three years has worked to finish her feature-length documentary on the subject, says she sees a connection between both definitions. Why? Because these days, just living life can feel like trying to stay on a bucking bronco.

“It’s like bucking off your problems, bucking off your poverty, bucking off whatever sort of  historical, institutional oppression your community and you might have been going through,” Keber says. “It’s dance as a way to liberate yourself, even if only for four hours on a Sunday.”

 Pigeon town Steppers, Easter Sunday 2014.

Pigeon town Steppers, Easter Sunday 2014.

 CTC Steppers, 2016.

CTC Steppers, 2016.

 Keber’s film is almost complete, with only a few more shots scheduled before her team begins entering their finished work in film festivals around the country.

She sees “Buckjumping” as a film that belongs not only to her, but also to the New Orleanians whose spirits propel the story forward. It’s part of Keber’s approach to what she calls “community media,” a seed planted more than a decade ago when she served an internship with Appalshop, the Oscar-winning media and arts group in Whitesburg, Kentucky, that has documented the lives of Appalachians since 1969.

“That was my first exposure to film and how to be a filmmaker,” Keber says. “Their community-media values are so strong, and that was the first lesson. You can’t make media that’s not accountable to community. You can’t make media about community if you’re not going to get community members to have their input. Anything less than that is false.”

Those principles guided the production of “Buckjumping” as Keber slowly built relationships with clubs in more than a half dozen New Orleans communities.

But her commitment to the communities included in the film goes farther than merely taking time to understand their people and values. Making “community media,” in her mind, means she is accountable to the subjects of her film.

“In each of the communities that I’ve filmed, I’ve shown their segments to them,” she says. “It’s checking in along the way — not to say they would have creative control, but checking in to make sure that they feel confident in what’s being said about them.”

Throughout the film’s hour-plus length, a viewer hears only the voices of Keber’s subjects, with no narration. Community media, she argues, means “letting them speak in their own voices.”

“There’s no text on screen, there’s no voiceover, there are no omniscience, outside voices,” she says. “If I start writing voiceover, then that becomes my script. This is very much driven by the people who are in the film.”

The commitment extends to the financial realm. Beyoncé licensed some of the “Buckjumping” crew’s footage of the Pigeon Town Steppers for her “Lemonade” and “Formation” videos last year, and Keber quickly passed the money back to the Pigeon Town community.

“If Beyoncé is paying me money for this shot of the Pigeon Town Steppers, it doesn’t feel right [for me] to take that money,” she says. “That goes back to the Pigeon Town Steppers. It’s not that I’m paying them for their being in it, but at the same time, if I’m profiting off of someone else’s image, they need to share in that. People know that I have no interest in exploiting them financially.”

The Steppers were glad to get the licensing fee, but mostly, she says, “They were stoked they were going to be in a Beyoncé video.”

While production on “Buckjumping” is almost over, Keber and her uniquely diverse New Orleans crew have an all-or-nothing Kickstarter campaign running to raise the final $20,000 needed to complete the film. The campaign runs through Wednesday, March 14.

”Anything we raise in excess of that — if we’re that lucky — will go toward being able to bring community members to film festivals, “ she says. “Festivals will pay for me to come as a director, but they won’t often pay for someone in the film. But with a film like this, it’s just inappropriate and irresponsible to have only me up on the stage talking. So, the hope is that anytime we have an out-of-town screening, we’ll be able to take at least one person from the film to be their own New Orleans cultural ambassador.”

— Chuck Reece

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