“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted.”
– Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) in Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

Movies are a communal experience. They are made of thousands of tiny pieces that, when assembled just right, can create dreams, can create magic. From the moment the first seed works its way into the primordial celluloid and the roots take hold, the movie-making process draws people together. A collective of creative minds turn it over, painting in words, singing in images, envisioning characters, costumes and worlds. Then an assembly of performers laugh, cry, scream and run in front of the 35mm film (or army of pixels) as it powers past the lens. The image is injected with imagined life and created lives. Editors, sound mixers, colourists and other technicians break the pieces down, haul a few of their own ingredients in from the swamp and then, with some duct tape and tie-wire, they bring the elements together into a feature film.

Sometime later an audience shuffles into the cinema, the film whirrs through the gate and for the next two hours or so we become our own little community, a community looking in on another world or another time. Sometimes we witness an impossible world that can only exist far from the reality we know. At other times we see places we have been and faces we know that are so familiar they are real. Then there are films like Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. These films share with us a world, an environment, a community so real that it breathes and sings and eats and sweats and dies, yet is filled with the impossible, with ancient aurochs (1) and the magic of a “New American fable” (2).

Welcome to the Bathtub.

Zeitlin’s feature debut has been collecting cinematic accolades in almost every festival port it docks its boat (a boat made out of a truck bed with an outboard motor attached). Most notably it has already scavenged the cinematography award and the Grand Jury prize from Sundance and, from Cannes, it has collected the FIPRESCI prize, the Golden Camera, Prix Regards Jeune and a Special Mention Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (3). The film is quickly becoming a poster child for American independent cinema but reaches out to audiences far beyond the US border. It is a film made by a community, for a community, about a community, and contains a narrative truth so resonant that one critic described it as “a tattoo imprinted on the back of your head, the film’s message has always been with us” (4). It is a visually impressionistic film with a bombastic score and erratic yet effective pacing that draws its audience in from the very first frames.

The opening of the film has been compared to early Terrence Malick due to the way Zeitlin “makes nature register on screen” (5). The twisted trees and plants of this water logged world are seething with life, from tiny crawling bugs to swarms of crustaceans and a number of beloved pets. Scattered through this environment are the people: the singing, drinking, firework lighting people of the Bathtub (the name of the community). This living, breathing space overtakes the screen, earthing itself in the cinema’s floor – or in the words of the pre-pubescent heroine Hushpuppy, this environment is all “feedin’ and squirtin’”. The film draws us in. The camera weaves through the world, introducing us in passing to the people and places of the narrative. And, though we have never been here before (and since it is a semi-imagined space, could never visit later) we are made to feel we belong, that we are welcome. The Bathtub is a place that exists on the very edges of America, where the country collapses into the sea. Zeitlin filmed entirely on location and has said in describing this part of the country, “When you look at the map, you can see America kind of crumble off into the sinews down in the gulf where the land is getting eaten up” (6). This is an America that has figuratively and literally fallen off the edge. The Bathtub is a mythical place that exists beyond a (the) levee, where people live on platforms strung between trees or in ramshackle dwellings built out of other people’s debris and scavenged car parts. These improvised homes look like they have organically grown out of the Bayou, school bus bonnets and all. The set seems so real since Zeitlin and his filmmaking collective Court 13 actually assembled everything from rusted-out equipment and found objects (7).

This film, and the collective behind it, has carried the importance of community with them from the very beginning. Starting out as a stage play by Lucy Alibar called Juicy and Delicious (which Alibar describes as “a bluegrass musical about sex and Southern food” ([8]), the film was workshopped and worked on for three-and-a-half years. It was churned over in Sundance labs, had extensive input from all the members of the Court 13 filmmaking collective and large amounts of on-set improvisation from the actors was encouraged (9). The cast, too, is a core part of Beasts’ filmmaking and on-location community. The film is populated with non-professional actors, people from the streets of New Orleans and the surrounding Bayou villages and towns. Wallis, who has been described as “a tiny force of nature” (10), was scavenged from over three and a half thousand hopeful local children while David Henry, who plays Hushpuppy’s father Wink, is a New Orleans baker by trade (11). This community-driven attitude and spirit can be felt throughout the film. And it is very much a film that aims to be felt and experienced rather than just told and observed.

The Bathtub is such a rich place that, as the film progresses, it seems to seep out of the screen and flow into the theatre, splashing over the community that watches from behind the levee of the silver screen. And when the storm comes (and it most certainly comes) and the levee breaks (and, like levees do, it most certainly breaks), the audiences are washed along with the inhabitants, caught up in the raw, unfettered humanity that fills out the film. Though it charts the story of a group of people living in and through impossible times, the weight of the film (and the weight of the universe) sits about wiry shoulders. The film follows Hushpuppy as she endures the storm, wrestles with her ailing father, searches for her mamma that swam away, and all the time builds toward a confrontation with the beasts, the aurochs, that have come unstuck from the ice (and from time.) It is a real, fantastic world that could only exist in the cinema of the 21st century: a cinema that is post-Hurricane Katrina and is surrounded by the looming threat of global warming. It is a timely film, which speaks both in a universal and yet highly personal tongue.

These “big concerns” do mean ethical quandaries bubble to the surface of the floodwater. The film, quite loudly, asks what right we, on the other side of the levee, have to impose our ways, our values, our world on this community? It asks grand humanistic questions of love, of family, of how far you would travel to find, to protect and to eventually return to your home. The film is never heavy-handed with this, leaving any political and social criticism to be fleshed out by its audience. Though we get carried along with Hushpuppy travelling from her school bus to home, through the streets of the Bathtub and beyond the levee, we never forget where we, where the film began. This is not a dark, despairingly critical film. It is one of hope, of passion, of power. In Zeitlin’s words, “the premise was that the residents of a community could band together in a wild, reckless movement of hope” (12). The critical reactions to this film suggest that the wild, reckless movement of hope is spreading to the community inside the cinemas where it is shown, infecting and inspiring them. It is a little film with a big heart that is never cloying or saccharine, one that is open to critical and academic debate. However, at its very centre, is Hushpuppy, who, just like the film surrounding her, is raw, honest and speaks directly of the importance of the communal nature of society, life and cinema.

So, after the projector cools down and the film is packed away, other communities take hold of it – the collectors, the historians, the archivists. The moving image is the record, the logbook, the cave painting of our time. And many years from now, when the floods have washed the world as we know it away, maybe our future selves, a future community, will unreel the celluloid (or decode the black box) and view this magical, realistic, wonder-filled film. And, though it shows actors playing parts and designer built sets, this future community will see across the levee of time to who we were… or at least who we dreamed we could be.

“I’m recordin’ my story for the scientists of the future. In a million years, when kids go to school, they gunna know; once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub.”
Hushpuppy

Endnotes

  1. Aurochs were mighty beasts and the antecedents of modern cattle.
  2. Peter Debruge, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, Variety 20 January 2012: http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117946874?refcatid=31.
  3. The film’s accolades are outlined in Todd Gilchrist, “Beasts of the Southern Wild: Director Reveals the Obstacles to Perfection’, Hollywood Reporter 20 June 2012: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/beasts-southern-wild-director-benh-zeitlin-340275.
  4. Debruge.
  5. Todd McCarthy, “Beasts of The Southern Wild: Sundance Film Review”, Hollywood Reporter 21 January 2012: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/beasts-southern-wild-sundance-film-review-283801.
  6. Zeitlin quoted in an interview with Rachel Arons, “A Mythical Bayou’s All-Too-Real Peril: The Making of Beasts of the Southern Wild”, The New York Times 8 June 2012: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/movies/the-making-of-beasts-of-the-southern-wild.html?pagewanted=all.
  7. Zeitlin describes the pleasure of building a world from the bottom up in Arons.
  8. Alibar quoted in Richard Corliss, “Beasts of the Southern Wild: The Sundance Sensation Wins Cheers at Cannes”, Time 18 May 2012: http://entertainment.time.com/2012/05/18/beasts-of-the-southern-wild-the-sundance-sensation-wins-cheers-at-cannes/.
  9. Corliss.
  10. Corliss.
  11. Arons.
  12. Arons.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is screening at the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival.