Michelle Benoit ’79
New Orleans Filmmaker
New Orleans musicians crowd the stage, shouting the call and response chorus of Creole tune Eh là-bas. “Eh là-bas, chéri. Comment ça va?” lt’s spring 2006, barely a year after my hometown’s devastation by Hurricane Katrina and her man-made disaster of collapsed levees. These musicians wear brave faces in a city where gigs are few and this “rent party” will put much needed money in pockets. We’re filming the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Katrina anniversary documentary which will go on to earn a national Silver Telly, but that possibility is far from my mind as I signal jazz great Victor Goines to join banjo player extraordinaire Don Vappie on stage. I’m really thinking what a triumph this concert is, not just for the musicians, but for the crew we’ve hired. They are thrilled to be working in New Orleans after exile in north Louisiana where the film industry retreated in the storm’s wake.
Three years later, actors portraying musicians stage a different scene. We’re recreating a 1946 New York jazz dive for Franco-German cable giant Arté and broadcast network France 2. Bebop blares, costumed extras swing out. The “dive” is an old store in New Orleans’ lower 9th ward, one of the hardest storm-hit communities. A few blocks away an entire neighborhood has been bulldozed. As the French and Louisiana cast and crew ready the next take, I wonder if any realize this room was under water after Katrina. For weeks.
Both scenes are from my films American Creole and Cigarettes et Bas Nylons that will screen at the CineJazz Film Festival in Paris this November 20-30, 2012. As a filmmaker living in New Orleans, our shift from surviving and healing to recovery and growth is satisfying, especially as Louisiana continues to outpace other U.S. locations in film production. Not bad for a region on life support six years ago. Showing these films at CineJazz reminds me what a fantastic and precarious town and industry I live and work in, and how much that adds to my love of the challenge of visual storytelling. Did I know I’d be doing this when I was an undergraduate at the, then, American College in Paris? Definitely not. But I did know that I loved literature, art, and history; and that my professors brought them to life in a way that made me long to do so as well.
In American Creole, a New Orleans musician struggles to find work and his cultural identity after Katrina has scattered his sidemen around the country and moved his flooded-out Mom to his couch. Nowhere more than New Orleans does culture emerge from landscape. Jazz music, our interactions on the street, how and what we eat, these things, and so much more, are linked to our French and Spanish colonial past, our Native-American and African heritage, and our location at the edge of the Caribbean where laisser les bons temps rouler is central to daily life. What happens when that cultural landscape is wiped out by a hurricane? Our musician grapples with that question as we all did post-K (as we now call that life-altering time). He answers it in a truly New Orleans way. See the film to find out.
In 2006, my husband and partner, Glen Pitre, and I answered that question by moving our base of operations solely to New Orleans after years of a Louisiana-Hollywood commute. Our talents didn’t lie in mucking out houses or helping folks navigate FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency, locally know as Fix Everything, My Ass) or organizing concerts. We know how to make films and we’d help out by bringing as many young filmmakers and Louisianans as possible into each of our projects. So far, so good.
Feature-film Cigarettes et Bas Nylons, which we executive produced, is based on true stories from after D-Day when 6,000 G.I.s married French women (that’s celebrating!) and the U.S. government turned G.I. embarkation camps into citizenry schools where les Françaises learned skills deemed necessary for survival stateside. The story follows three brides who meet at the camp then travel to their husbands’ homes where they discover the all too regular guys beneath those handsome uniforms. Louisiana locations played Brooklyn, Connecticut and Alabama. Many local actors were from a reinvigorated theatre scene in post-K New Orleans. If we were worried our culture would wash away with the storm and some Disney-fied city would spring up in its place -- well, we had the right to worry – but the reverse is true. We’ve held on tighter to our traditions and embraced new talent from around the world to participate in our unique joie de vivre and recovery. Not just in the arts, but in education, digital technology, bioscience, and green/sustainable industries.
My work as writer, director, and producer often delves into Louisiana-related subjects or revolves around Louisiana as a location, but I frequently think of the great foundation laid for me at AUP where discussions were lively, critical thinking was expected, and learning took place as much in theatres and museums as in the classroom. Filmmaking may seem glamorous or mysterious, but behind closed doors it’s just the hard work of ferreting out a good story, telling it well, and satisfying an audience. Those are the skills I delighted in as my AUP professors shared their knowledge. Their lectures created worlds I wanted to go to. Professors Dounia Barnett, Béatrice Didier, Jean Bardot, Clélia Hutt, Michael Beausang, and Terence Murphy opened my eyes, ears, and heart to literature, theatre, language, history, art and film. A little bit of them is in each project I undertake, each story I choose to tell. I thank them and AUP eternally. And, I’m thrilled that some of my New Orleans-based work will be seen in Paris where jazz and Louisiana will be celebrated at the Cinejazz Film Festival.
Michelle Benoit is a 1979 graduate. Her company Côte Blanche Productions
(www.coteblanche.com) is based in New Orleans. Check the Cinejazz website this fall
(www.cinejazzparis.org) for screening dates and times.