All saints: A city is revisited in Dawn Logsdon's "Fauberg TremŽ: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans." (Photo courtesy SFFS)

SFIFF51: Dawn Logsdon, on new hope in an old neighborhood, "Faubourg TremŽ"

Susan Gerhard April 15, 2008

One giant storm and the government malfeasance that followed transformed New Orleans into a metanym, but directors Dawn Logsdon and Lolis Eric Elie dig through the rubble of the horrific disaster to find a deeper, richer history of one particular New Orleans neighborhood. It’s a storyline that, if fully appreciated and reappropriated, could not only help bolster a city rebuilding itself, but remind the rest of us why it’s so important that the ideas of this city live on. Faubourg TremŽ, now better known as the Sixth Ward, was home to pre-Civil Rights-era liberty for African Americans and fertile ground for political activism as well as music and literary life. Hogsdon, who grew up in New Orleans but has transplanted to the Bay Area, exchanged notes on the making of the movie via email with before the film’s West Coast premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

This week, runs a special series of interviews with Bay Area filmmakers in the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival. SFIFF51 runs April 24-May 8 at the Sundance Kabuki, Castro, Pacific Film Archive, Clay Theatre and other locations. Where you’re from is central to this story. Can you tell us a little about being raised in New Orleans?

Dawn Logsdon: Growing up in New Orleans back then was almost like being raised in another country. We ate different food, listened to different music, and celebrated different holidays from the rest of the country. When I was a kid, the city still had almost no chain restaurants or strip malls. We ate po-boys and gumbo, not hamburgers. We had a week long vacation from school at Mardi Gras and had picnics in the cemetery on All Saints Day. They don’t even deliver the U.S. mail on Mardi Gras Day.

But I also had a very atypical New Orleans childhood for a white kid. My parents were Civil Rights transplants from the midwest. Because most of the city’s institutions were still segregated in the early 1960s, my parents chose to join to an all-black church and sent us to mostly black public elementary and junior high schools. A lot of our family life revolved around Civil Rights meetings, marches and election campaigns. It wasn’t until I got to high school that I realized that this was pretty unusual and that most white kids lived in a totally different New Orleans from the one I’d been immersed in. How long have you lived in San Francisco?

Logsdon: I moved to San Francisco from New Orleans in 1980, a year after I graduated from high school. I had never been to California before. I came out on the Greyhound bus in the summer with a backpack filled with my New Orleans summer clothes. I got off at the old Greyhound terminal off 6th Street and had to go buy a jacket right away. Then I got on the cable car and fell in love with the city immediately. I spent the rest of the evening in North Beach at City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio’s. By the end of the night I had decided I was moving here for good. For the next year, I worked as a cocktail waitress at the Stone on Broadway, lived in a collective household with people from all over the world and got worried letters from my mom about cults and drugs. Eventually I went to school at UC Berkeley and got a degree in Philosophy.

Lucie Faulknor, our other producer, had a similar experience in the other direction. She’s a 3rd generation San Franciscan who relocated to New Orleans to work on this project. I think it took her about 3 days to fall in love with New Orleans and decide to move there. They’re both great cities.

Since the flood, we’ve moved back to the Bay Area and are living in Berkeley. But if anyone knows of a rent-controlled flat, we’d love to get back to the City! What led you to become a filmmaker?

Logsdon: While I was a student at Berkeley, I was really lucky to get a job working at the campus media center, which provided support services for the Journalism School’s documentary lab. That’s how I eventually met Marlon Riggs and Sam Green and all sorts of other talented young filmmakers. I got trained to edit there and started helped my friends in the doc program edit their docs. For the next 15 years I worked in post-production houses around SF— first as an assistant editor on commercial jobs and eventually as a documentary editor. This is my first feature length directing project. What have been your biggest influences in the creation of your films to date?

Logsdon: 1.) My childhood in New Orleans. 2.) Working with and learning from great Bay Area documentary directors like Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, and Sam Green, and equally great editors like Veronica Selver, Debbie Hoffmann and Lucy Massie Phenix. That training really had a huge influence on me. What was the most key moment in bringing about Fauberg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans?

Logsdon: Rescuing our master tapes after the flood and ITVS supporting our decision to go back into production—even though we had almost finished editing the film before the hurricane. What was your biggest surprise in researching the stories?

Logsdon: How much of this history even WE didn’t know. How great the historic parallels are between the 1860-70s and the 1960-70s Civil Rights movements and how many of those issues America is still grappling with today. How did the making of this "city" story differ from your "Castro" documentary?

Logsdon: Although you wouldn’t think so at first glance, there are actually deep similarities. Both docs are about a community’s struggle for equality. And in both neighborhoods, creative expression—especially music—played a key role.

The biggest difference in terms of filmmaking was that I was the editor of The Castro, not the director. The director was Peter Stein. And unlike FT, which was an independent doc, The Castro was a KQED production—so The Castro had an entire station backing us up and providing support. Even so, many of the filmmaking challenges were the same—like trying to get access to a community that held a lot of secrets and was wary of being represented to outsiders; finding historic images of those communities; and trying to rein in a huge, incredibly complex stories with many characters and dramas. The difference with FT was the story we wanted to follow spanned centuries instead of decades. Can you tell us about the score?

Logsdon: Isn’t it beautiful? I love the score so much. The original score was composed by Derrick Hodge, who is just starting out as a composer. He came to us via Terrance Blanchard, the wonderful New Orleans composer who does most of Spike Lee’s score. Derrick is the bass player in Terrance’s band, has been composing with Terrance, and really wanted to compose a doc on his own. I’ve worked with a lot of composers over the years and I’ve never had such a great experience as working with Derrick. He just ‘got’ everything we heard in our heads without us even being able to put it into words.

We also did quite a bit of research on the indigenous New Orleans music you hear in the film. It spans the gamut from traditional brass bands, to funk and jazz. Lolis Eric Elie, the writer and co-director, knows a lot about the history of New Orleans music from his days of traveling with Wynton Marsalis’ band. He has a huge New Orleans traditional jazz collection and friends who have even bigger collections. I learned a lot about the music of my hometown through him. Is there any advice on filmmaking you’d like to pass along to other nonfiction filmmakers?

Logsdon: 1.) Pick a subject you really care about. Because this will be years of your life. 2.) Don’t get duped into believing you have to spend your money on the highest tech gear. Pay for the best human talent instead. 3.) Show your rough cuts early to other filmmakers. Especially those whose work you love. 4.) Only collaborate creatively with people you trust. It will be the biggest test of your relationships to work together. I was so lucky to have Lolis and Lucie stick with me all the way to the end. 5.) Learn something about the business end of filmmaking before you start. What are you working on next?

Logsdon: After so many projects about large communities and big issues, I’d like to do a biography of one person – probably an artist. I’m researching several possible subjects, most are fascinating women in music.

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