Editor’s Note: We want to send out a giant congratulations to Lily Keber, who was named one of New Orleans’ 40 Under 40. For our “Perspectives” series, which talks with New Orleans-based journalists, pod-casters, documentarians, and photojournalists about their place and role in the journalistic world, Lily was interviewed by Abby Dolan about her work and what it means to her and New Orleans.
Who: Lily Keber
What: Filmmaker and New Orleans resident. She’s now working on her third film inspired by the cultures and peoples of New Orleans.
A quote I’ll remember her by: “It doesn’t happen by accident.”
Q: Where are you from, how old are you and how did you get started in film?
LK: I was born and raised in North Carolina, in the mountains, near a town called Boone. I finished high school in Savannah; I went to an arts high school, and I went to University of Georgia.
Born in 1982, so I am 37. I did visual arts in high school, and I knew I was going to do art, but I didn’t know what kind– so my degree is in fabric design. Not fashion! Fabric design. And I ended up with that because of how University of Georgia structures their art department. Like you had to declare which flavor of art you were going to do. All of the other departments were very segregated; if you declared painting, you just did painting. And in fabric design, you could basically get away with anything. So I’m like, alright that’s what I’m going to do.
I think what fabric design ended up teaching me was a heavy emphasis on craftsmanship. I have a vivid memory (and this does have a point, might take a minute), of being in a sculpture class and someone had hung a sculpture and the teacher never even got around to talking about the sculpture. They talked about the screw they had used to attach it to the ceiling. I remember at the time thinking: Ummm…. what about the sculpture? The lesson was, if your craftsmanship is sloppy, then the message you’re trying to get across is going to be taken less seriously.
My senior year in college I took multicultural film. So it was a film class, and it was the first time in my life (it sounds dumb now), I’d ever really thought of film as art. I took enough film classes my senior year to get a film studies minor. But, Georgia didn’t really have film production and also I was ready to get the fuck out of college. So I went to Maine to a place called the Workshops and took a class there. It’s very hands on, you get a camera in your hand and start filming.
The first four weeks it’s essentially class — the first four were narrative and scripted content. And the last three were documentary. When we got to [documentary] I was like, ‘this is awesome, this is the best thing ever.’
My mom has a PhD in Cultural Anthropology, so she’s trained as an Anthropologist. My dad is a city planner and geographer, and my step-mom is a historian. So I feel like my whole life I grew up thinking about how people structure themselves in society, and why. And I feel like that’s how I view the world. And then, suddenly, I found that through documentary film could be a way to explore how people structure themselves in society in that same way. It just seemed like such an incredible tool to like amplify the voices of other people.
Q: Where did you find inspiration for your projects?
A: I moved to New Orleans at the end of 2006 — just sort of put everything in my truck and moved down here. I knew one person, had about $200 bucks, and moved to post-Katrina New Orleans. I was 22-23 at the time.
I ended up bartending at Vaughan’s, and that was sort of my introduction to the city post-Katrina, observing people.
At Vaughan’s I heard James Booker on the Jukebox, and got inspired to make Bayou Maharajah. It was a combination of hearing him on the Jukebox and thinking: What the hell is this? ‘Cus I’d never heard music like that. Also they had his live albums, which is like a stream of consciousness. It’s the music streaming out of his brain, not just tracks with beginning, middle, end. That with the combination of the stories that the people at the bar would tell about him made me wonder: Who is this dude? Each story was more outrageous than the last, and people said it with such immediacy, like people were telling a story about something that happened yesterday, not 30 years ago.
Q: Why is being a filmmaker in New Orleans different than anywhere else?
A: New Orleans has inspired all three of my films (I’m now shooting a third). All of my films to date have been very rooted and grounded in this place, from a place that has a culture.
New Orleans is very open, and open to outsiders and transplants, and that was crucial. Especially showing up with a camera, it’s like you know people here are very open and gracious. So that’s one, but also, the levels of culture and the cultural density here. And the fact that it is so ingrained in the everyday experience. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t do something — being a musician, in a walking krewe, or showing up to support someone else who is in the krewe. That directly is the inspiration for all of my work.
Q: Would you consider yourself a journalist?
A: ehhhhh… Maybe like a cultural journalist. Bayou Maharajah is a commentary on the creative endeavor and how hard it is to be a creative person. I liked the archival-ness of it… It did inspire me with Buckjumping to make something very contemporary. And I made a very conscious decision not to have any archival footage in Buckjumping because I didn’t want that nostalgia effect. I really wanted to push the idea that this is culture that happens in the streets today, you can go see it. Yeah… so I mean I guess bringing it back…. I haven’t thought of myself as a journalist.
It definitely is about finding cultures and groups of people, and stories, and bringing them to light — stories that happen today. I feel like the greatest compliment I’ve gotten on that film is from New Orleanians telling me that the film taught them something about their own culture, and that it brought up things that they did not even know existed.
Q: How has Buckjumping been received by New Orleanians? Is there anywhere your representation fell short?
A: The reception in New Orleans has been overwhelmingly positive. People have, like I said, told me that they’ve learned things that they didn’t know. People told me that they felt really represented, that they feel their voices on screen, like they’d never seen before. That feels great.
I’ve also been complimented for telling the real story and not just the stories that get told over and over again. I was just showing in Tallahassee and someone who used to live in New Orleans commented, ‘You didn’t show Bourbon Street!’ And, yes, that’s exactly the point. I really tried to go deeper. We’ve seen the Indians sewing, there are many films that have the Indians sewing. So when I decided to tell the story of Indians, I tried to tell a different story about Indians. A big, intentional decision in the film was showing practices, showing the behind the scenes, showing the time investment that goes into all of those things. It doesn’t happen by accident. People don’t just show up in the street looking great. The social clubs have to meet, you know, get dressed, put a lot of money into it, a lot of time.
One thing I really wanted to be in the film that’s not, was a more explicit discussion of how the people in the film and the cultural barriers in New Orleans are overwhelmingly affecting the working class. I really wanted to forward a class discussion, and I really wanted to make it clear that none of these endeavors and acts are supported by the city government. The social clubs have to pay for their own security; they really have to pay for their own policing. Moms are raising money and have to pay steep fees for their children, even in the public school. I think people get it, but as a revolutionary, anti-capitalist, I wanted to make it very clear that almost all of these cultures exist in spite of the government, not through the government.
Q: I am dying to know about your freelance work for Beyoncé. What was that experience like?
A: Originally I got hired by them to license some footage that they had seen. So I cleared some of that footage and shot some new footage for them under Claiborne. I sent them the trailer for Buckjumping, so then they asked for more footage. They had some stuff in Buckjumping that they liked, but they wanted something a little different. So I went and shot new stuff how they wanted it.
I was getting paid just as an employer and was clearing my own footage. At that point I felt like 100% of the fee I got from them for filming, I gave it back to the people. I don’t have to do that; there are a lot of filmmakers who don’t. But I felt like if I’m getting money for an image of the Pigeon Town Steppers, then that’s not really mine. That needs to go to the Pigeon Town Steppers. So that was an example of putting my money where my mouth is.
People who were gracious enough to let me film them, or those who didn’t even know they were on film — they were just out in the street and I’m filming them — I felt like it was important that that money go back to them. The footage was literally how I got the computer that I edited Buckjumping on. I had some ancient iMac that could not have handed the 4k footage. So, I got paid, I bought a computer, and then people in Buckjumping got to be in Beyoncé’s work and got money for their representation.
Q: How would you define the “alternative” and how do you see your work fitting or not fitting your definition?
A: I feel like when you talk about culture in America, you are already talking about the counterculture. There is this idea that there is no culture in America, which again in New Orleans we know is a fallacy, but I feel like talking about culture in America is like talking about something that people are not aware of. But also, I feel like that’s how our country got so divided. Because we don’t have these spaces where we come together as citizens and do a thing — a 4th of July parade is just about the extent of it.
It’s like we have these individual things getting more and more individual. People don’t sit on stoops anymore; they go inside for the air conditioning. I hope my films, if nothing else, raise questions, create conversations, and create an understanding of a different person. I hope that people not from New Orleans can watch Buckjumping and understand something, not only about New Orleans, but something about culture, about black culture, about black joy, about creativity, artistry, and also about self-definition and pride.
I think that that is subtle, but I still find it really important.
So I guess that is an element of the alternative. I really try to make films that are art. I don’t really care if it gets bought or not. I know that my films, if I make a good product, will find their own path. I’m never ever going to make a film just to sell to PBS. If PBS wants my film, awesome. But if I can’t be 100% proud of the film then what is the point?
It is very tempting to want to make a film for the grant application, ‘cus like Sundance has such a particular type of filmmaker and type of project they want. Granting sources have particular things they are looking for, and I feel like they can go fuck themselves. That is why I want to freelance, and I knew I wanted to freelance coming from art school.
It sucks but, when you rely on your art to make a living, then you have to make a living off the art. You have to turn a profit. And that is just a different approach. I do use film to make money, but I don’t use my films to make money.
This interview was completed for the class Alternative Journalism at Tulane University taught by Kelley Crawford. The interview has been edited and configured for publication.