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VIDEO: Jazz Funeral: A celebration of life

Editor's note: Ukrainian filmmakers Natasha Masharova and Anatoli Ulyanov have recently launched a project concerned with fringe culture in various regions throughout America, tracking their finds in a series of short documentary films, with New Orleans serving as the starting point for the venture. One of their first films, observing a jazz funeral, motivated the pair to extend their stay in New Orleans. The two discuss the impact of this single experience.

Unlike New York or Los Angeles or another arguably more cosmopolitan city, New Orleans is a largely mysterious (especially to foreigners like us) space -- not completely overtaken by corporate chains trending fads. The city’s eccentric nature is precisely what makes New Orleans interesting for filmmakers like us. Of course we heard about more widely visible cultural aspects of the city, like Mardi Gras and jazz, po’ boys and beads. However, what we have been interested in documenting are more intangible aspects of the city -- complicated, nebulous quandaries: How New Orleans would make us feel, the sort of vibes it would exude, the existential environment it would provide, the assortment of characters it would gather, (what exactly Who dat?! meant on a sociological level).

Driven by such questions we left New York and launched VVHY, a cinematic project documenting people and their cultures in various spaces throughout the U.S., relocating to a new city every couple of months, collecting visual intensities along the way that are deeply concerned with the notion of place, more specifically instances that capture a piece of a place’s soul.

We prefer to travel without tour guides. We seek organic experiences we stumble upon on our own -- something more rich in tradition and soul than Cafe Du Monde and The Steamboat Natchez and Bourbon Street daiquiris; we’re looking to rediscover forgotten spirits. Because New Orleans bears a reputation of eccentric, inimitable character -- charisma, cultural diversity and a sort of “wildness” makes this place tangible and real (well, surreal sometimes too), we decided to launch our cinematic adventure here.

One of our first finished products is a short documentary about a New Orleans jazz funeral in Treme. In Ukrainian culture, funerals are wholly sad experiences. Slavic funeral ceremonies are based on escalation of your pain in order to squeeze it out. Instead of hiring orchestras, we hire “cryers,” groups of women who are especially skillful at crying, screaming and suffering -- morose DJs, if you will.

When we witnessed jazz funerals, it felt like being struck by lightning. For us, observing a jazz funeral served as a revolutionary reimagining of a cultural technology. Regardless of how one copes with loss, it is still a loss. The difference then, lies in how a person, a family, a culture chooses to express that loss, how to transform it into a moment, an experience in the material world. Dissimilar to mourning Ukrainians, New Orleanins cope with loss through subversive means. They disobey death by choosing to celebrate life instead.

Oddly enough, filming a jazz funeral felt like a drinking from a fountain of vitality – the experience left us feeling alive and inspired. In fact, witnessing a jazz funeral was the motivating experience that convinced us to stay in New Orleans for another month (or two?).

It made us realize how full of soul and life the city is. You just need to find it.

VVHY is looking for insiders who can help them discover local New Orleans. If you have suggestions or tips concerning topics for their future documentaries, you may send them to [email protected]