Big Chief Victor Harris. Photo by Jeffrey David Ehrenreich

By Robert Kenneth Dator.

Bury The Hatchet?

Where is the conflict? The title of this beautifully shot documentary would constitute something of a double entendre if one could find the combatants. There is poetic strife of a sort; factionalism of a sort; mild hostility; competition, but no long-standing feud; no ages-old rancor that wants rest. There is much of the purely metaphoric and allegorical here that might be buried or threatens to be buried—if one is willing to take on the workload required to stretch this linear narrative around what available footage there is that might make the shots match the press. Yes, there are definitely Indians, well, African American men masquerading as Indians. The website tells us:

Bury The Hatchet features three Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs in a dynamic portrait of the unique and endangered culture of New Orleans they represent–as bearers of tradition, as artists and as musicians.

Descendants of runaway slaves given harbor by the Native Americans in the bayous of Louisiana, these practitioners of a hundreds-years-old tradition [sic] sew elaborate costumes resembling those of the Indians, parading through the streets of the city on Mardi Gras day while singing traditional songs that contribute another layer to New Orleans’ already rich musical vernacular.

Big Chief Alfred Doucette. Photo by Jeffrey David Ehrenreich

This is quite accurate and true, as far as it goes. But one is never sure if the subject here is Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs; their particular ‘musical vernacular;’ their history, their culture; strained race relations between these tribes and the New Orleans police; or, Hurricane Katrina and the devastating effects that epic storm wrought upon the city and in the lives of these people. You see, not one of these streams is followed amply enough to inform the viewer, and one can’t come away from viewing Bury The Hatchet feeling as though the documentary is about all of this, because Hurricane Katrina comes along and becomes another element in a story that had already introduced plenty of unresolved elements.

This film is undeniably fascinating. This element of New Orleans and Mardi Gras culture is surely one never before explored and little known of by all but residents of the city. But even here, we learn that the Indian parades are held one block over from the main Mardi Gras festival—and even this is never explained—except to show one hostile scene in which the police try to disburse the Big Chief revelers—for not having a parade permit; who knows? Once again we are told:

Following these men, we get to experience the vulnerability of the black community in New Orleans—from the destruction of middle class African-American neighborhoods to make way for an interstate highway, to the violence that once defined their culture, to police crackdowns, the reality of aging and death, and finally the absolute devastation of their community following Hurricane Katrina. 

To be perfectly polite, this kind of press will play very well overseas, but nothing of the kind is evident in this documentary: this is to say that the above paragraph is a characterization of that which one can see, not necessarily that which one will see. Even with this kind of priming at the pump, making these kinds of connections out of the footage as edited is a huge stretch at best. It was easier for Robert Kenner, director of Food Inc. (2008), to make the goings on at a commercial abattoir look sinister. And for the record, the destruction of neighborhoods owing to the development of the interstate highway system is a matter of geography, not racism, and happens in neighborhoods inhabited by peoples of all ethic origins, all across America. I wish documentarians would stop trying to sell us something. Show us the final cut and let the audience make the decision about what we’re watching. This kind of bias and press hype has been creeping into the art form since Ken Burns had the audacity, in his parochial The Civil War (1990), to push the title card: The Cause… Slavery. My God what rubbish.

The documentary was never something more pure, more truthful, and more noble than commercial cinema—but it successfully sold that idea to the extent that the naïve, young and old alike, actually believe that a documentary is the true story.

Big Chief Alfred Doucette. Photo by Jeffrey David Ehrenreich

Bury The Hatchet will have an appeal simply by virtue of its initial subject. Instead of Elvis impersonators—always good value—we have Big Chief impersonators.  Even so, Bury The Hatchet remains rather unfocused and subjective to the point of capturing the purely circumstantial. I don’t know what I would have thought of this film if I hadn’t been told what to think of this film. But it prompted me to ask: “Did Leni Riefenstahl think of herself as a filmmaker or a documentarian?”

No, I’m not suggesting that Aaron Walker is a propagandist. Well, maybe a little.

There is a compelling story in Bury The Hatchet. I’m just not convinced that Aaron Walker knows what it is. But, here’s a tip: beating this show to death in an attempt to make a thing of political commentary is not the way to find out.

Actor, writer and director, Robert Kenneth Dator, worked in feature film and television in the United States and Australia before teaching and attending Graduate School. Rob and family live in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he is hard at work on several projects including the website Cinepsyche, currently under construction.

 

Film Details

Bury The Hatchet (2010)

United States

Director Aaron Walker

Cinematography Aaron Walker

Producers Aaron Walker and Marie Slaight

Editor George Winston

Composer Amy Sanderson

With: Big Chief Monk Boudreaux (himself); Big Chief Victor Harris (himself); Big Chief Alfred Doucette (himself).

Runtime 120 minutes

Color (16mm) to DVD (NTSC, Region 1) USA, 2010

Produced by Altaire Productions, Cine-Marais

Aspect Ratio 1.78:1

Sound Mix: Stereo

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