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Once Upon a Bayou

Days before the wide release of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the filmmakers returned to Montegut to show it to the people who fed them and housed them, built their sets and filled their supporting roles. “They captured, touched, a little part of what it’s like to be down here,”said Michael Pitre, who runs a mechanic shop and helped work on the boats used in the film. “As far as living off the land like we do,” he explained. “When I was growing 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.”

Director Benh Zeitlin and his Court 13 filmmaking collective were among a wave of artists who moved to New Orleans after the city was devastated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Zeitlin fell in love with the beauty and precariousness of life on the nearby bayous – where houses are built on high stilts to protect against frequent floods and people look to the sea, not the store, for their dinner. He came to Montegut to tell a story that combines personal loss with environmental catastrophe and ended up starting the shoot on the same day as the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded a few dozen miles away, unleashing the worst maritime oil spill in history.

“Beasts” tells the story of a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy on the brink of orphanhood struggling to save her ailing father and sinking home in a beautiful but insecure place called the Bathtub. The magical film captures the vibrancy and complexity of a Louisiana community that has refused to abandon lands being lost to coastal erosion and threatened by hurricanes and oil spills. “It is all real,” Zeitlin told Agence France-Presse after screening the film for about 600 people in Montegut’s recreation center late Sunday. “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.”

The Gulf Coast loses a football field size piece of land every 45 minutes, and much of that loss happens in the bayous of southern Louisiana, where roads disappear into canals. Most residents can trace their roots back to before the Louisiana Purchase, when France sold its colonial lands to the United States. Many families are just one generation removed from the French of their Cajun or Native American ancestors and live in homes built on land handed down across generations.

A far as Montegut may seem from the modern world, much of “Beasts” was shot even further south, on the other side of the levees. Isle de Jean Charles, site of some the film’s 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 from both sides.

Dwight Henry, who plays the lead role as the ailing father with a passionate intensity, feels this community’s struggle to recover from recent disasters is the same as that faced in his native New Orleans. “We so resilient down here,” he told AFP. “We going to refuse to leave the land that we live and love, and the things we built with our bare hands.”

Jeff Leboeuf, a fisherman who plays a small role in the film, is not sure his coastal community will be able to hold on after the poisonous oil spill. “Shrimping ain’t the same, lot of other things ain’t the same,” he said. “I guess I got to get a real job.”

Jeff’s wife, Lena Leboeuf, loved the film, and hopes that viewers around the world will get the message. “I think it’s going to help a lot to see what people go through down here,” she said.

Zeitlin never expected his low-budget film – which is already stirring Oscar talk after winning the Camera D’Or at Cannes and a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance – to win a Hollywood distributor, let alone so many accolades. “The plan was always that this was the way we were going to show the film – in community centers and organize screenings ourselves,” he said.

Watching the crowd in the Montegut gymnasium as they laughed, held their breath and then erupted into a standing ovation was cathartic. “I feel finished with the film for the first time,” Zeitlin said as he accepted hugs and congratulations. “This was what was in my head for two years when we were editing.”

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New Orleans and author of the book Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six.

This article was originally published by Agence France-Presse.

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Jordan Flaherty is a filmmaker and journalist based in New Orleans. You can see more of his work at jordanflaherty.org.

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