Cajun Culture Bearers
Roots of Fire is the LEH Documentary Film of the Year
The Lavois, who are based in New Orleans and San Francisco, produced, directed, and edited Roots of Fire. In his director’s statement, Jeremey Lavoi, a Lake Charles native who attended San Francisco State University, says he learned to love Louisiana after he left it: “Like a lot of other Cajuns in the diaspora, I yearned for the smells, tastes, and rhythms of my homeland.”
In 2022 the film began its run of festival screenings, including the New Orleans Film Festival, Lafayette’s Cinema on the Bayou, and award-winning showings in Mississippi, Illinois, Colorado, and Brazil. In January 2023 the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities named Roots of Fire the Documentary Film of the Year.
Using Lafayette’s Festivals Acadiens et Créoles and Blackpot Festival & Cookoff as a backdrop, the filmmakers also follow their subjects to their kitchens, dining rooms, and porches. At one point they visit fiddler Joel Savoy’s recording studio, which sits on property that’s been in his family for eight generations. Savoy and his younger brother, the gregarious singer, piano-player, and accordionist Wilson Savoy, are the sons of Cajun musicians Marc and Ann Savoy. Sitting in the cozy studio space, sharing the camera frame with a prominently displayed Grammy Award, Joel comes off as calm, steady, and forward-thinking. “We had this vision of taking Louisiana into the twenty-first century,” he explains. “We wanted to see that our Louisiana artists were represented and documented well.”
The other Roots of Fire principals are Jourdan Thibodeaux, an evangelistic singer and accordionist from Cypress Island; Kristi Guillory, an accordionist and Cajun music scholar who grew up playing at Cajun jam sessions; and Kelli Jones, a singer, fiddler, and songwriter originally from North Carolina. The Savoys, Guillory, and Thibodeaux offer their insights into the complex history that produced Cajun culture. Animated segments illustrate some key events, including the 1755 expulsion of the French-speaking Catholic Acadians from Canada and the brilliant artistry and tragic fate of Amédé Ardoin, a Creole singer-accordionist whose recordings set the foundation for Creole and Cajun music in the twentieth century.
The Lavois and their subjects highlight the daunting challenges and threats to an ongoing, vibrant, thriving Cajun culture. As showcased in Roots of Fire, the rewards for meeting those challenges manifest themselves in the culture’s unique music, dance, language, cuisine, and joie de vivre. “It’s not a spectator sport,” Jourdan Thibodeaux says. “You live it.”
John Wirt is the author of the New Orleans music biography Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues. He’s also written thousands of music and film features and reviews for newspapers and magazines.