In this Golden Age of fake news and mockumentaries, a documentary as deliberately earnest as Rebecca Snedeker's By Invitation Only might be difficult for some audiences to appreciate. But Snedeker's deeply personal look at New Orleans' racially exclusive old-line carnival culture -- in particular the socially prestigious debutante tradition that she ultimately rejected -- was never intended for amusement or the sole appreciation of film festival audiences. Instead, the 34-year-old New Orleans native, along with co-producer Tim Watson, set out to make a film for an audience that might recognize themselves in it.
"I realized early on how easy it would be to make fun of all this," Snedeker said during a recent interview in her small Oak Street office, adding with a laugh, "that definitely would not have taken as long. [The film took more than five years to complete.] What was challenging was finding a way to say, 'This is what I love about these traditions, but this is what is not OK with me about it.'"
Since the film's local premiere in September (By Invitation Only originally aired on PBS affiliates around the country in August and is scheduled to air again during Carnival), Snedeker has screened the film for student and community groups throughout the city and invited discussions about the difficult questions it raises.
On a recent Thursday morning, Snedeker spoke to a class of about 40 Xavier University students, all of whom had watched the documentary in professor Farrah Gafford's Introduction to Sociology class. Standing at a podium before a roomful of mostly black students, she fielded the first question posed by a young man: "Are the people in your film racist?"
The question was one she'd asked herself many times. Certainly her own family had always embraced the old-line traditions -- her great-grandfather reigned as Rex, and her mother and grandmother were both queens of old-line Carnival krewes. During the process of making the film, it was made clear that her then-boyfriend, who is black, was not welcome in the homes and at the private dinners of certain friends and family. That led her to take a closer look at the role she'd always been expected to play in her family and community.
"This is a system we are all a part of, and I've tried to make it less threatening by acknowledging it," she says. "I don't think it's about hatred. It's about doing something you've been doing for a long time that is familiar and comforting and cherished in many ways. There were times while making this film that I'd ask myself, 'Am I underestimating everyone? Are we really not racists anymore?' And then I would look at a [Mardi Gras ball] invitation that makes fun of civil rights leaders, and I'd know this was not OK."
In 1991, the New Orleans City Council banned any carnival organization from parading on city streets unless it publicly certified that it did not discriminate against prospective members because of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. Most krewes accepted the new order, but the traditionally white old-line krewes of Comus and Momus stopped parading in protest, and Proteus abandoned the streets for a time. Two federal courts later ruled the city ordinance was unconstitutional, and the state Supreme Court refused to hear the city's appeal.
Referring to a particularly frank moment in the film between herself and her father, Snedeker continued: "There's this line I love, when my father says, 'You and I both know that a lot of people would drop off [from the krewes] if there was a strong black contingency. I hate that -- but I wouldn't drop out because of it.' That was what I wanted to make a movie about -- how the importance of belonging to an organization can take precedence over its limitations."
Following that response, several more arms shot up around the room. One woman related a story of her own debutante experience, which she also found to be an alienating one. A young man expressed his surprise that there was so much subtext to a holiday that, for him, had always been about "food and family time." Another student offered, "Now I know why my mother didn't allow us to go to certain parades." When one student asked whether Snedeker had any regrets about the final result, she again responded without hesitation.
"I threw this rock as far as I could throw it, and tried to catch up with it. This is, for whatever reason, as far as I could go with it at this point in my life, so I have to be OK with that. I feel like I went far enough, for me."
For some -- mostly friends and funders from outside of New Orleans -- the film didn't go far enough, and some pushed her to take a more aggressive approach.
"I could sense when someone had an agenda like finally they had found someone to really take a stab at this subject, and it would make me feel really defensive," she says. "It's not that simple to me -- I love these people. These are my elders. I can't just be like, 'They're all bad and this should just go away.' I don't feel that way at all."
But anyone who dismisses By Invitation Only as pulling punches underestimates how difficult it is to discuss issues of race in the community where you actually live. A dressmaker and photographer who spoke candidly about the economics of Mardi Gras only consented to having their interviews included in the film after they moved away from New Orleans. In spite of her insider status, Snedeker has met resistance along the way, most recently in the form of a cease and desist letter. In order to avoid litigation, she agreed to obscure the faces of more of her subjects for any additional public screenings in New Orleans.
Still, when audiences laud her bravery in making the film, she's hesitant to accept too much credit.
"So many people have fought so hard for what they believe in, and suddenly questioning whether my community is racist -- that makes me courageous?" she asks. "What strikes me about that reaction is how hungry people are for discussions about racism. This film doesn't say anything we don't all know -- we just know it's not being said out loud."
Film producer Terence Rosemore, who recently co-hosted a screening of By Invitation Only at Caf Rose Nicaud as part of his Media Mixer series, echoed the need for the kind of candid discussion that the film prompts. "Part of rebuilding our culture and our city is to open dialogue -- not to point fingers, but to sit down and have a discussion about what we are and what we want to be," he says. "Some people were amazed at how much they didn't know about this culture that we celebrate."
After a recent screening at the Contemporary Arts Center for a group affiliated with Ash Cultural Arts Center, a young white woman said the film reminded her that when she first arrived in the city several years ago, her friends gave her a straightforward warning: Either accept racism as a part of life in New Orleans, or leave.
"New Orleans loses a lot of us," Snedeker offers with a nod of recognition. "I feel like I'm fighting for a space where I can fit in here, where I don't have to feel like I have to compromise just because it's too hard to try to change everything."
Not that she'd necessarily want to. Snedeker admits that she still finds the idea of being Queen of Carnival incredibly alluring, and ironically, it was almost as though the film's local premiere -- preceded by a patron party at Windsor Court and followed with a reception at Republic -- served as an alternative "coming out" party.
"None of that was lost on me, believe me -- everything in my life was reflected in the film. I could never have put this much thought and time into something if it didn't have such an appeal to me. Doing this film was a way of delving into this world and asking, 'What was I trained to be? What kind of woman do I want to become?' I felt like if I was going to choose to continue to be here and grow as an adult, then I was going to have to be able to ask certain questions out loud."
Those questions have proven to be a powerful starting point. During the post-screening discussion at the CAC, someone asked Snedeker if she felt liberated by making the film. "I'd been quiet for a long time," she said. "And I feel like my voice and my heart have come out. I feel much more straightforward -- and like I can stay here for a long, long time."
- Cynthia Joyce
- Rebecca Snedeker talks with students at Xavier University about her film By Invitation Only.