In honor of Father’s Day this month, I thought I’d share the story of a father and daughter I’m honored to know and the unique project that, for the first time in either of their careers, has turned them into professional colleagues.
Both are storytellers: The dad is Jason Berry, an author, journalist and filmmaker widely known for his coverage of the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic church. His daughter, Simonette Berry, is an accomplished scenic artist and writer who has worked in the film industry for six years.
Last fall, Jason Berry’s 10th and latest book was released — “City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300.” The book tells the story of New Orleans through the wide array of colorful figures that have shaped it through the centuries. It is only, however, the first part of the story. The second will be told through a feature-length documentary called “City of a Million Dreams: The Untold Story of Funerals in New Orleans.”
Twenty-two years ago, the project began when Jason Berry began filming jazz funerals and interviews with musicians.
“I was frequently interrupted with my reporting on the Catholic church, but I knew I’d come back to this project,” said Jason Berry, “and in 2015 I finally got the chance.”
With new funding in place, Jason decided to do something he’d never done professionally, call upon the help of his daughter to complete his team (which also includes editor and producer Tim Watson, a veteran of documentary work).
Illustration by Tony Healey
“She started doing image research, scouring archival collections and old footage and photographs,” he said. Over time, Simonette rose to serve as the film’s production manager, production designer and as a producer.
“I think her most significant contribution to the film is the Congo Square reenactment we did,” said Jason. “It was such a major undertaking with a lot of technical issues, and she organized the whole thing. I think she really came into her own with that work.”
“We filmed out in a large field in Plaquemines Parish over three days last October with about 40 crew and maybe 50 dancers, musicians and extras,” explained Simonette, who added that many of the musicians were flown in from different parts of Africa to make the experience as authentic as possible.
While telling the story of the growth and resilience of the city that has always been their home, both father and daughter say the project has also helped them grow, both professionally and in their own relationship.
“It was really exciting, the idea of working with him at first,” said Simonette Berry, “but then we had to go through a period of figuring out how to relate as working professionals. We were coming to the project from different places — I had more experience on the production side of things, and he was coming from more of a writing and directing place. There were definitely times at the editing table when we went toe-to-toe, but we always worked it out. He likes to say he’s learned a lot of humility from the whole thing. I have to.”
“Working with Sim has been about the most rewarding professionals experience of my life,” said Jason. “I’m surprised by how much I learned. She is a consummate professional and I hope we can work together again. I also hope she’ll be inspired to embark on projects of her own.”
But first, this documentary has got to get through its home stretch.
“We’re finishing the rough cut now and then we’ll be showing it to some select focus groups,” said Jason. “This summer we’ll be fine tuning the edit and then in the fall we’ll be submitting it to film festivals.”
“We want this piece to go international,” said Simonette. “We have high hopes of sharing our amazing cultural history all over the world.”