Filmmaker searching for support to air local bonfire documentary nationally

Published 3:18 am Sunday, August 6, 2023

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GRAMERCY — During a winter trip to the River Parishes in the early 2000s, Chicago native Mark Niedelson was enchanted by sights of children taking “sleigh rides” on carboard boxes down levees lined with Christmas bonfires waiting to be set ablaze.

Niedelson captured the magic of the local tradition in his documentary, “Papa Noel: The Legacy of the Levee Bonfires.” Filmed locally, the documentary aired statewide on Louisiana Public Broadcasting during the Christmas season in 2021 and 2022. Now, Niedelson is rallying support for the opportunity to air his documentary on a national level.

The plan is for “Papa Noel” to be placed into a pool to be made accessible to all PBS networks across the nation. As an independent filmmaker, Niedelson must secure advertising from corporations, foundations or private investors to see his documentary make its nationwide debut.

“When I started out making this film, I think I was a little naïve to the industry and what it would take to get it on air,” Nieselson said. “I’m pretty proud of what I’ve done and also appreciative of the opportunities I’ve received. It’s a long shot. A lot of people hope for this, and it’s exciting. For one guy to do this with no budget, it is really imperative that I find support. PBS allows the filmmakers to sell advertising that goes before the film and it repeats after. My main goal is to sell this advertising to make this broadcast as good as it can be.”

Niedelson began working on the documentary in the year 2000, and the initial version was completed around 2012-2013. In 2015, it was polished and tightened into the version that first aired on LPB in 2021.

Niedelson learned about the bonfire tradition during a holiday trip to New Orleans. He and his brother took a chance on a bus tour to the River Parishes after seeing an announcement for the Bonfire Festival pinned to a bulletin board at a youth hostel.

“We got there in the early afternoon. I saw all of these structures, and I was really in awe,” Niedelson said. “I liked the energy. As the evening started building, the excitement and the traffic started building. When they used the pyrotechnics to light these things, I was even more blown away.”

The following December, Niedelson was inspired to return to St. James Parish, immerse himself in the local culture, and document the unique bonfire building tradition.

Niedelson originally planned for the documentary to be about a specific bonfire builder, but the end result featured local historians and focused more on the community aspect of the event.

With the nationwide broadcast campaign coming up, Niedelson would like to return to St. James Parish to catch up with the individuals featured in the documentary.
“I would like to come full circle and give back to the community; say hello again and see where they are all at,” he said. “I’m hoping to drum up some support in the state of Louisiana and find people who would be interested in helping. I believe it’s a very positive story for the state.”

Niedelson can be reached at