I spend a lot of time outside the levees of coastal Louisiana—my wife and kids would say I spend too much time out there. It is a slow-motion, shape-shifting deltaic masterpiece where water and land have clashed for millennia to form wetlands, marshes, ridges, barrier islands, and bayous able to adapt to the creative and destructive hand of God. Also for centuries, people of Native American, European, and African descent have lived on land and with water in ways that flex to the region’s geographic mutability. It is a place and a people that understand change. However, throughout the twentieth century, with the acceleration of oil exploration, levee building, saltwater intrusion, land subsidence, coastal erosion, and sea-level rise, the natural and human capacity to adjust to change has reached a breaking point. Some say the balance is already broken. Some say there is no turning back.
Out of this bleak picture was born the independently-produced Beasts of the Southern Wild (later picked up by Fox Searchlight after it won the Grand Jury Prize for drama at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival). Following its limited U.S. release last month it went on to win the Caméra d’Or (best first film) at the Cannes Film Festival. Most critics have gone out of their way to lavishly praise Beasts, with one writing that its “passionate and unruly explosion of Americana” that “reminds us not just of the unlimited possibilities of outside cinema, but of something true and intrinsic within ourselves.” Others have withheld such adulation citing the film’s “screw-tightening methods,” smothering musical score, and “a distrustworthy slickness reminiscent of a British Petroleum oil spill clean-up commercial.”
Much of the applause is directed at the film’s heroine, Quvenzhané Wallis, the six-year-old non-professional actor who grew up in a Louisiana bayou town and who may soon become the youngest Academy Award nominee of all time. Sharing much of the admiration, and the object of much of the criticism, is the film’s director, co-writer, and composer, Benh Zeitlin, a Queens native and graduate of Wesleyan University, where he formed a filmmaking collective called Court 13 (named after a squash court at his alma mater). Like many artists and social entrepreneurs, Zeitlin moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina where, in 2008, he made his first short film, Glory at Sea, about “a group of mourners and a man spat from the depths of Hades [who] build a boat from the debris of New Orleans to rescue their lost loved ones trapped beneath the sea.”
In many ways, Beasts is a thematic and stylistic extension of Glory at Sea, which takes place in a levee-less enclave called the Bathtub, where a girl named Hushpuppy (played by Wallis) lives with her neglectful but loving father Wink, played by New Orleans baker-turned-actor Dwight Henry. Father and daughter, together with other outcasts of the Bathtub, face the possibility of cataclysmic flooding and state-imposed removal from what appears visually to be a post-apocalyptic, post-diluvian wasteland. It is precisely due to the film’s intoxicating, whimsical, and lingering visual qualities, combined with its Odyssean drive and metaphysical meandering, that has almost every reviewer making comparisons to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.
Religion Makes You Feel Okay About Dying
Behind the usual ruminations of film criticism (and a film critic I am not!) is a mythical story inspired by actual circumstances. Following the critical acclaim of Glory at Sea, Zeitlin redirected his attention from post-Katrina New Orleans to parts of Louisiana that, in the words of Zeitlin, “kind of crumble off into the sinews down in the gulf where the land is getting eaten up.” He made his way to Terrebonne Parish, where he found inspiration on a narrow strip of land surrounded by a dilapidated ring of levees built to protect the two dozen remaining French and Indian families of Isle de Jean Charles from hurricanes and anything else the Gulf of Mexico throws at them.
Isle de Jean Charles is like other communities scattered throughout the wetlands of coastal Louisiana that fall outside the federal levee system. The seventh largest delta on the planet, these wetlands contain 37 percent of the marshland in the United States and the largest commercial fishery in the lower 48 states—to say nothing of the largest offshore oil production of any state. These wetlands are also the most endangered in the country, accounting for 90 percent of all coastal wetland loss in the lower 48 states. From 2004 to 2008 (the years that saw Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike), 328 square miles of marsh turned into open water, an amount that exceeded the total land loss for the preceding 25 years. According to scientists and conservationists, Louisiana loses a football field of land every day.
But Beasts of the Southern Wild is not a scientific study of the problems facing coastal Louisiana. Nor is it a documentary meant to portray environmental injustices and the plight of drowning villages—at least not overtly. Rather, according to Zeitlin:
[Beasts is] about the emotional facts. What is the feeling of going through this loss of a place or of a parent or of a culture? How does that feel, and how do you respond emotionally to survive that?
In an interview in The Atlantic, Zeitlin addresses these questions by imagining the Bathtub as “a society where all the things that divide people have been removed. So there’s no religion, no politics, no money, no one sees race, there’s no rich and poor because there is no currency” (a vision for which some critics have blasted him). Zeitlin then blankets enormous moral and existential dilemmas over the Bathtub and its inhabitants.
Correspondingly, Zeitlin believes that “religion deals with these big questions, and it gives you an answer, and makes people feel all right about dying.” He sees Beasts as a kind of folktale that “address[es] incredibly key issues about how you should live and what the right thing to do is, which is really what I’m the most interested in—like the questions that religion takes on.” And for someone who doesn’t consider himself to be religious, Zeitlin sees art as “that [which] stimulates the same kind of thinking about what it is to be a mensch, or a good man, things like that.”
Zeitlin is no scholar of religion, but he is an artist and a storyteller who finds beauty and meaning in suffering and disaster. He is not so much a folklorist (unlike his parents, who actually are) as he is a creator of folklore, which, by his definition, seems akin to making religion and encouraging religious experience. If screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) were to revise his 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film, Beasts might make a good illustration for his belief that “human works,” like films, “cannot inform one about the Transcendent, they can only be expressive of the Transcendent.” To put it another way, “although transcendental style… strives toward the ineffable and invisible, it is neither ineffable nor invisible itself” because the filmmaker “uses precise temporal means—camera angles, dialogue, editing—for predetermined transcendental ends.”
And Beasts is a transcendental film. As I sat in New Orleans’ Prytania Theater for a weekday matinee surrounded by dozens of retirees and a handful of college students, I was in the Bathtub; I observed the world through a child’s eyes; I witnessed a hurricane and a flood; I met an auroch; I watched a man die; and I saw a home vanish. I think I felt what Zeitlin wanted me to feel. He tore at my organs with all of his “precise temporal means” and left me swimming through Hushpuppy’s recent memories, mourning the loss of life and saying, “When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces.” As you’ll learn, you’re not supposed to cry in the Bathtub.
Sometimes You Can Break Something So Bad
So why Louisiana? Why not Michigan or California or South Carolina? And why a storm and a flood? Why not an earthquake or a tornado or a fire? In the same Atlantic interview, Zeitlin responds:
I think that redemption, or enlightenment, or some sort of truth is found very close to destruction. It’s in the most extreme situations where you find this, where you get this abandon that allows you to understand yourself or understand other people. It’s part of what fascinates me about Louisiana. There’s just some sort of internal or external freedom that exists there that I don’t feel anywhere else in America… There’s some kind of enlightenment that exists in Louisiana. There’s a fearlessness in the culture down there that has everything to do with how close to death it is.
If we take Zeitlin at his word—that Louisiana is some kind of grim pleasure garden of freedom and frivolity that perspires enlightenment, vomits courage, and two-steps in the eye of the storm—then I’m going to have to respectfully disagree, at least in part. Zeitlin’s characterization of Louisiana is not uncommon, not for a newcomer and not for a native. It’s a variation on the whole laissez les bon temps rouler routine, with every country Cajun and Creole queen living every day like it’s Mardi Gras.
It’s also part of the national and international fascination with Louisiana’s disaster streak. Had 1,836 people (1,577 in Louisiana) not died during Hurricane Katrina and had the population of New Orleans not decreased by almost 30 percent (a majority African American), there would be no Beasts of the Southern Wild. Also, by coincidence, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil blowout occurred on the first day of shooting the film in April of 2010. As Zeitlin puts it, “The oil spill happening created this sort of strange, life imitates art on set… The whole time you would wake up in the morning and check the oil and it would get closer and closer… it was really eerie.”
Zeitlin’s commentary aside, Beasts depicts coastal Louisiana’s environmental and cultural endangerment in ways that transcend scientific studies and government policies, while at the same time reaching national and international audiences. The film’s attraction is its story, its characters, and its aesthetic. Its success has everything to do with Court 13’s joyful ethic of respect and love for the people and places they represent in film.
My fear, however, is that those who watch Beasts of the Southern Wild will get lost in the wonder and magic and spirit of the Bathtub; that they will rest in the film’s beauty instead of being jolted by the reality that, as Hushpuppy says, “Sometimes you can break something so bad, that it can’t get put back together.”
Isle de Jean Charles—the isolated island hamlet that inspired Zeitlin in the first place—is the Bathtub, and so are the communities of Lafitte, Estelle, Paradis, Des Allemands, Golden Meadow, Cocodrie, Dulac, and Leeville. Based on land loss projections and in spite of Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan, these and other places in coastal Louisiana might not exist in 100 years. It is a fact, it is too late, and it is a disaster.
But this is nothing new to Louisiana. Once there was a boy named Cledemere Lafont. He was 14 years old when a hurricane pounded his home in the coastal village of Cheniere Caminada in 1893. He was swept out to sea and rescued eight days later by the crew of a pilot boat 18 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi River. Upon his return to what was left of Cheniere Caminada, he discovered that his parents and brother had died along with 800 other residents. Those who survived the flood moved “up the bayou” (as they still say in Lafourche Parish) to towns like Leeville and Golden Meadow. Today, what remains of Cheniere Caminada is a historic marker and a decaying cemetery.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is not about saving the Bathtubs of Louisiana. It is about remembering them. “In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.”