ABOUT THE FILM:
Why do we dance for the dead? This documentary explores the complex roots of the New Orleans jazz funeral, using burial traditions as a viewfinder on the evolution of the city. Writer-director Jason Berry, a distinguished cultural historian and director of an award-winning film on the Vatican, Vows of Silence, has been researching and filming brass band funerals and musicians’ interviews, since the 1990s.
Jazz funerals are caravans of memory. Where did they come from? What explains their stunning dramas in the choppy rhythms of city life? Jazzmen before television called them “funerals with music.” The radiant second line dances descend from the burial choreographies of enslaved Africans in large rings at a public park called Congo Square. The grandeur of colonial-era French and Spanish marching band parades, the 19th century linear processions for yellow fever victims, and the emergence of Sicilian bands added to the melding of ethnic traditions, parades honoring the dead. In City of a Million Dreams, we follow the coming together of the ring and the line.
Our protagonist is Original Liberty Jazz Band leader Michael White, a prolific recording artist. We follow White’s search into the past of his musical ancestors who played at the dawn of jazz and carried the African-American funeral traditions into a new art form. White’s visit to Whitney Plantation opens a lens on the struggle of enslaved people, and the culture of freedom rising in the early burial parades, charged with themes of liberty and arrival. The film takes a jolting turn as White, after Hurricane Katrina, enters his flood-ravaged house, amid the loss of 5000 cds, 4000 books and all his compositions. Through White’s odyssey of renewal, he becomes an Everyman as the city slowly achieves its own resurrection.
As the film unfolds, we meet an array of cultural torch-bearers, like Fred Johnson of Black Men of Labor. The galvanizing Deb “Big Red“ Cotton, a Gambit Weekly blogger chronicling the second line, emerges as a powerful voice the people. Cotton throws a focus on gun violence that has beleaguered some of the parades for Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, spawned by the old benevolent society funerals. When Deb is one of the people wounded in a gang crossfire at a 2013 Mother’s Day parade, her public forgiveness of the assailants -- visiting her shooter in prison – takes the story in a powerful meditation on mercy and redemption.
Deb Cotton’s funeral drives the arc of our story on funerals with music, a tension between the breathtaking beauty of these rituals and the struggle for justice embedded in the history of City of a Million Dreams.
Michael White, Deb "Big Red" Cotton, Gregg Stafford, Milton Batiste, Harold "Duke" Dejean, Sybil Kein, Fred Johnson, Ed Buckner, Emily Suzanne Clark, Bruce Raeburn, Mark Hertsgaard, Philip and Keith Frazier and others.
To read more about our amazing crew members, click HERE
Jason Berry: Writer/Producer/Director
Tim Watson: Editor
Harris Done: Director of Photography
Simonette Berry: Associate Producer/Production Designer
Michael White: Research Producer/Narrator
Deb Cotton: Advising Producer
Jay Weigel: Composer
Maryse Dejean: Narrator
What we need:
With most of the filming done, we are on track for post-production in the fall and submission to 2019 film festivals, the standard route to secure distribution with PBS, HBO, Netflix, or other outlets. Jason Berry has a companion book forthcoming in November, City of a Million Dreams: New Orleans at Year 300 (University of North Carolina Press). We are seeking $20,000 to cover the next leg of the project, final shooting and securing permissions for still photos in editing a fine cut, before post-production. Every dollar makes a difference as we continue with fundraising.
Anything we raise beyond $20,000 will go towards post-production costs: securing rights to songs, and footage, color correction, and final editing. We offer an assortment of themed gifts for every contribution, as well as regular updates on our filming, screenings, parties, and special events. You will see the results of your donation not only in gifts but on the big screen, when City of a Million Dreams enters the festivals and is shown at museums and universities on the path to distribution.
In the gift category, we include images by Charles Lovell, whose coverage of the second line clubs and parading culture of the city yields beautiful images, timeless and compelling. The parading tradition has been threatened by gun culture and gang violence in a way that musicians and Social Aid and Pleasure Club leaders decry. This documentary is a case study on the power and the beauty of community culture, how tradition carries hope against violence, rejuvenating the soul of the city. This is a story that has to be told. We will have outreach screenings with discussion at area colleges, schools, and community centers. This film and the companion book will be teaching tools on New Orleans history for years to come. Help us pass this tradition on to the generations to come. We welcome your donation and support at any level. If you can't afford to give, please share our project with your friends and on social media. Please spread the word about City of a Million Dreams.
Risks and challenges
We have dealt with our share of risks since we began filming jazz funerals in the late 1990s. Our protagonist, clarinetist Michael White lost his home in Hurricane Katrina, which dealt a huge setback to the production plan. As we got into the final leg of filming last year, our secondary figure, Deb "Big" Red Cotton, a blogger of the parading culture, died from a residual bullet wound in a 2013 Mother's Day parade. Most of our filming and script revisions are done; we have expended about $280,000 to date and are working on the fine cut, with a proposal underway for an agent to represent us for distribution.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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