Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild, A Hollywood Film With Roots on Louisiana’s Disappearing Coast, Opens Tomorrow

Earlier versions of this article originally were distributed via Agence France Presse, and in Louisiana Weekly.
The Gulf Coast loses a football field of land every 45 minutes, and much of that loss happens in the bayous of Southern Louisiana, where roads disappear into canals, winding their way through swiftly eroding marshes. The population here is a mix of white Cajuns, African-Americans, and several Native American tribes, and most residents can date their roots here to before Louisiana was part of the US.

Some families in this former French colony have only been speaking English for about a generation, and recall childhoods lived mostly outside of the system of monetary exchange: their family ate only what they could catch or grow, and lived in homes they built themselves on land handed down across generations. There are few shops here, and many of the homes are built on stilts, a dozen feet or more off the ground, to defend against the flooding that becomes more common with every foot of land that vanishes.

The nearest movie theater is about an hour away, but on Sunday night 600 people filled the local recreation center for a Hollywood premiere. Beasts of the Southern Wild, a feature recently acquired by Fox Searchlight, was shot in this rural community in 2010 by a filmmaking collaborative from New Orleans. The film has already won critical acclaim and top prizes at the Sundance and Cannes festivals, and been celebrated as an early Oscar contender. Now, a few days before the film’s release, the crew has come home.

Beasts tells the story of a young girl named Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis, who was six years old at the time of filming) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry, a 47-year-old Baker from New Orleans who like most of the cast had never acted before), struggling to survive in a magical but disappearing community called the Bathtub.

Beasts captures the vibrancy and complexity of a Louisiana community that refuses to abandon lands being lost to coastal erosion and threatened by hurricanes and oil spills. The film’s themes were given a greater intensity by real-world events: on the first day of filming, the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded not far from here, killing 11 workers, blackening beaches and marshes in five US states and devastating fishing and local economies.

The threat of disaster, both natural and man-made, constantly hovers over this region. The oil spill came as people were still rebuilding homes destroyed in the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The film premiered here as tropical storm Debby churns through the Gulf, causing warnings and raising fears in coastal communities from Florida to Texas.

A far as Montegut may seem from the modern world, much of Beasts was shot even further south of here, on the other side of the levees that provide some protection from the frequent storms. Isle de Jean Charles, site of some the films’ most enduring images, is home to just a couple dozen families, mostly from the Biloxi-Chitimacha tribe. Their houses can only be reached by traveling across a narrow road that even on the best of days is half-submerged by water coming from both sides.

For months, the cast and crew lived here and were embraced as family. Everyone in this close-knit community pitched in; appearing in the film, helping to build the sets, or feeding the cast and crew.

“They captured, touched, a little part of what its like to be down here,” said Michael Pitre, who runs a mechanic shop here and helped work on the boats used in the film. “As far as living of the land like we do. When I was coming up, that’s what we ate: shrimp, crabs. That’s all we had to eat. That’s all we could afford because we would catch it ourselves.”

Benh Zeitlin, the film’s director and cowriter, agrees. “It is all real,” he said. “I don’t think I invented anything for this movie. It’s all things that I’ve seen and heard and experienced in different parts of Louisiana, and it’s all kind of concentrated on this one island in the film.”

Dwight Henry, who plays his lead role with a passionate intensity, feels this community’s struggle to recover from recent disasters and displacement is the same as that faced in New Orleans, where more than 100,000 former residents still have mot returned since the 2005 storms. “We so resilient down here,” he said. “We going to refuse to leave the land that we live and love, and the things we built with our bare hands.”

Although Beasts is fantastical and mysterious, it moves with the propulsion of the best action films, and the crowd was clearly moved, laughing at the humorous moments and holding their breath at dramatic scenes. For Zeitlin, this is always the audience he pictured seeing the film, not New York arthouses or Cannes. He said he and his crew never dreamed they’d have Hollywood distribution - they imagined themselves touring around the US, showing the film in community centers.

As the credits rolled, the room erupted in a sustained applause. Zeitlin took the stage to thank everyone who helped, and invited all in attendance to an afterparty at the local Lions Club, a community space next door. “This was what was in my head for two years when we were editing, said Zeitlin, as he accepted hugs and congratulations. “I feel finished with the film for the first time.”

Pictures above from Beasts of Southern Wild premiere in Montegut, featuring director Benh Zeitlin, star Quvenzhané Wallis, and other cast, crew, and audience members.

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