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Hot Docs 2011: ‘Bury the Hatchet’

Bury the Hatchet

Directed by  Aaron Walker

2011, USA, 86 mins.

Bury the Hatchet’s box describes it as a portrait of three major Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs of New Orleans (Alfred Doucette, Monk Boudreaux, and Victor Harris), and whilst I’ll admit that these men loom large, this documentary feels less like a portrait of these three and more of a landscape of New Orleans as a whole as painted by the Big Chiefs themselves. Covering five years, before and after Hurricane Katrina, this film brings us the Mardi Gras Indian’s authentic and intimate take on New Orleans. Their story is one of gentrification and urban decay, of struggle against the police and amongst themselves, and of the tradition threatened from within by indifferent youth and from without by natural disaster. Director Aaron Walker tops off that tall order with a killer jazz soundtrack, because why make a film about New Orleans without a soundtrack great enough to stand on its own?

The Big Chiefs who serve as our guides to New Orleans are fascinating to listen to, which is handy, because Walker has them narrate the film (save a few title cards). They relate to us the history of the Mardi Gras Indian (which Walker aids with archival footage), as well as every other subject approaching their tradition and New Orleans – they have a lot to say, and because Walker shot over the course of five years, they get lots of time to say it.

A great deal of this film’s appeal lay in the beauty of its cinematography. Attention is only paid to the camera during interviews – the rest of the time, Walker’s subjects ignore it and act naturally, leading to a very intimate tone that engenders a feeling of privilege for the audience. The Mardi Gras parades themselves, obviously, are the highlight of the film, but Walker gives us other interesting titbits like Big Chief Alfred Doucette trying to convince a kid to put together a Mardi Gras suit for himself, the incredible funeral of Big Chief Tootie Montana, and a particularly fraught meeting between city officials and the Big Chiefs.

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The surprising thing about Bury the Hatchet is that there isn’t much despair – that New Orleans trope – in this documentary. To be sure, there is struggle, but balancing that is hope. Walker isn’t shy about portraying the odds stacked against the Mardi Gras Indians, but he is careful to show us their resilience – and in their resilience, hope.

– Dave Robson

Hot Docs runs April 28 – May 8th. Visit the official website for the festival.