I wouldn't be a reporter without two very large, chaotic, unpredictable forces that shaped me: Hurricane Katrina and Mardi Gras.
I'll save the storm story for later because it's Carnival Time! Happy Mardi Gras!! Fat Tuesday is a day to "do what ya' wanna," and it marks a crucial stop along my path toward journalism.
In 2001 I was selling print ads appearing in OffBeat Magazine to music festivals, cigarette companies, night clubs and a dominatrix named Mistress Genevieve.
(Sidenote: The cigarette ads paid more. Bars paid late. And Genevieve handed over the money upfront).
The magazine's publisher was an entrepreneurial trailblazer who survived a devastating car crash and an equally debilitating economy crash, yet always kept the spotlight shining brightly on upcoming New Orleans musicians who otherwise wouldn't have gotten any exposure. She fought the good fight, and as a young sales rep it was my job to fund her battle.
While most of my news colleagues began small-market reporting jobs in their early 20s, I sat in the publisher's office as she threatened to castrate me if I didn't reach my sales goals and collect on past due accounts. (Sidenote: I'm not entirely sure this was a metaphor).
In the midst of a female-led, Louisiana style "Mad Men" work place, something unpredictable was happening that would become formidable in my reporting career.
You see, the Frenchmen Street office building held a culture-soaked staff obsessed with New Orleans. They knew where the best live music was playing, the spot for the most delicious po' boys and even the route of that jazz funeral that ended with ashes laid to rest over a bar cash register so the deceased can eternally watch over his money….
Everything New Orleans lived and breathed within the halls of Offbeat. I absorbed every drop I could, but I wanted to do more than just hear about it from the writers.
I got the idea to document that feeling of New Orleans. I wanted to preserve it. No one seemed to be doing this with video at the time.
Over drinks at some French Quarter hideaway with brass band or swamp pop on the jukebox, I committed to split the cost of a $400 video camera and make a Mardi Gras documentary with two close friends.
My first interview was Kermit Ruffins, set up outside of Joe's Cozy Corner with a bar-b-que grill smoldering in the background.
John Sinclair, the subject of John Lennon's song by the same name described the annual battle of the Mardi Gras Indians.
The full interview list included Irma Thomas, Stanton Moore, Marva Wright, Rosie Ledet, Jeremy Lyons, Morning 40 Federation, Irene Sage, Charmaine Neville, Jason Marsalis, Benny Grunch and more.
Even my own castration-threatening magazine publisher took part. Jan Ramsey embodied the film's title "Don't Worry Honey, I Live Here."
Making my first documentary was an excuse to get to know them all, and most importantly ask anything.
It was a king cake flavored taste of the essence of journalism. The job gives you complete reign to be curious. With a camera in my hand the walls fall down, and I feel I can ask virtually anything, virtually anywhere.
For three Carnival seasons, 2001-2003, I roamed from the French Quarter to Mid-City to the Treme with camera in hand, shooting every moment. My budget camcorder offered an excuse to feel confident enough standing up close to the action and in front of the crowd.
What I discovered was how to learn through a lens. It's still my favorite way to experience something new. I certainly never dreamed those Mardi Gras days would be so paramount in my reporting career, but they taught me so much.
Film Threat called the film "a record of the Big Easy’s most famous event in the years prior to Hurricane Katrina. A glimpse of the raucous, rude and wonderfully hedonistic excess of the Mardi Gras festivities."
I liked the Times-Picayune review better. Dave Walker wrote that the film "feels like a miracle."
Years after after its release, the final batch of DVDs is almost sold out at Louisiana Music Factory, and the world doesn't watch DVDs anymore anyway.
So this Mardi Gras I am giving it away online to those kind enough to click.
Enjoy! And... Happy Mardi Gras!!!
Jeremy Campbell is an ATLien, storyteller, traveler... & often all three at once.