Watch a love letter to New Orleans by the teenage director of Burning Cane

An exclusive short film and text by director Phillip Youmans pays tribute to the city that shaped him

For 19-year-old director Phillip Youmans, home is home. When his Louisiana-set debut feature made him the youngest and first black filmmaker to win a prize at Tribeca, it was easy to wonder how any teenager could have made this startlingly original work all by himself. But although he wrote, produced, directed and edited Burning Cane, Youmans has his friends, family and community in his hometown of New Orleans to thank for making it happen. For this special guest-edit, shot over Thanksgiving, he travelled back to the city to shoot the individuals who matter most to him. “I was thinking about all the people who had an effect on me,” says Youmans of the cast. “I didn’t want to think about it in a straightforward way, because it’s not always a picture-perfect interaction that you have with somebody for them to have an effect on you – and for you to be honest about the effect they’ve had on you.”

I’ll start with my mother.

“So my mother raised my sister and me – she is a single mom. She put everything into us, in truth. We are so much better friends than we’ve ever been. When I was a kid I was kind of hard-headed, and a little bratty sometimes, considering my differences with religion and being brought to church. But I also have to recognise that my mother – and this can’t be said for a lot of people I know – really motivated us to be free thinkers, to not necessarily conform in thought. That was how she was brought up, and that was how she believed. As I got older it became very, very clear that she wasn’t fighting me or the way that I was feeling. I think it hurt her considering what she was raised in, but she was much more sympathetic to the nuances of my thinking than some of the rest of my family was – and still is – to this day. My mom is kickass. She was also a huge help with Burning Cane, and it’s so interesting because (the film) showcases religious figures in a fallible light – props to her for still riding with me.

“But New Orleans has very spiritual people, even those who are not locked into any religious convictions – like Kaia (Helen in Burning Cane). I’m not even sure what Kaia aligns with because in New Orleans it can be a spectrum of things – there are people who have practised spells and Voodoo. People think of Voodoo as cursing people, ragdolls and The Princess and the Frog, but it’s not like that. It’s different when you go to people who practise Voodoo and (see) the lighter, more loving side of that whole equation.

“I’ve always wanted to tell stories. When I was five or six I used to dress up in anything, to (become) different characters. I would be Santa Claus, or I’d get naked and wrap a cloth around myself and say I was Tarzan! It’s difficult to articulate why I love telling stories so much; it feels therapeutic in a way. I have the most confidence in myself, and my intentions, when I’m working on films, whether that’s writing or production or editing. I’m kind of an introvert in truth, so I think my favourite parts are the more isolating ones – production is amazing but I do love writing and editing so much.

“My neighbourhood is Gentilly, in the seventh ward. (Hurricane) Katrina tore it up. I was five when the hurricane hit, so I (only) remember bits and pieces from before. One thing I remember of the hurricane itself was evacuating – being on a clogged road heading west to Houston. We stayed in a motel there for a little bit, then we went to South Carolina, where my mom dropped my sister and me off with our grandma. My mom worked for the state – she’s a doctor – so she had to go back to New Orleans while the floodwaters were still high. Our house got flooded.

“After the hurricane, contractors came in and built new homes for people moving back, but a lot of the homes – mine included – were rebuilt using drywall that was toxic. When we came back to New Orleans everyone got sick – my lungs were starting to corrode and I ended up in hospital. We realised it was the drywall – there was a settlement about it recently. We still don’t know the long-term effects it will have on people. I remember being with my grandmother in South Carolina and getting into trouble because I hated it – I just wanted to be in New Orleans (with) my friends. After that we lived in Georgia for a year and a half and I didn’t like it there (either), then my mom got her old job back in New Orleans.

“I do have fleeting memories of Katrina. It’s interesting when people who were older at the time talk about how it changed their perspective on the city, and how it was different before. A lot of the city left after Katrina – not everyone came back – and with that a lot of the neighbourhoods changed. The demographics definitely changed. Gentrification is something that is sweeping across (lots of) cities in the US but in New Orleans it’s incredibly clear. The neighbourhood where my old school, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, used to be was an all-black neighbourhood. Now it’s pretty much all white. A lot of people who were living there before the storm say that something was lost, but I think differently. I was very young, but for me a city is defined by the people in it, by the people that mean something to you. And all of the people who have ever meant anything to me are still back home. Home is never lost in that way.”

Talent Falola ‘Ojo’ Akinlana, Mark Eyer, Yancy Young Jr, Rashaud Brown, Tera Eyer, Rahsaan Adoni Ison, Mose Mayer, Cassandra Youmans, Sydney Youmans, Daylight Rodriguez, Sly Watts, Wanky B, Joshua Williams, Yancy Young Jr, Cooper Gros, Chad ‘40 Mid’ Roby, Albert Charles, Jeremiah ‘Ooozie’ James, Antonio ‘Champ’ Travels, Theodore ‘Choppy’ Thompson, Derek ‘B.W.Street’ Brumfield, photography assistants Rahsaan Adoni Ison, Zacharia Pierre, Mose Mayer, styling assistant Archie Grant