Beasts of the Southern Wild

Behn Zeitlin leaves us spellbound by the magic of the Bathtub.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a magical-realist fable of the Bathtub; a fictional bayou locale where six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in desperate poverty and abandonment. Located on the wrong side of the levees, the community are under threat by rising sea-levels, biblical deluges and ancient aurochs. The film has an apocalyptic sense of dread, we are told that ‘any day now the fabric of the universe is coming unravelled’. In spite of her chances, Hushpuppy remains loyal to what she believes is ‘the prettiest place on earth’ (as realised by Ben Richardson’s cinematography). Buoyed by her childish optimism and extraordinary courage, our almost-orphaned tiny hero learns to survive unstoppable catastrophes. This loose adaptation of Lucy Alibar’s one-act play is a spirited and poignant celebration of life; the picture absolutely deserves the awards it won at Cannes and the Sundance Film Festival.

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The nine-year-old Oscar-nominee Quvenzhané Wallis

The production company, Court 13 Film, is a collective of filmmakers, artists and animators who share the attitude that it is possible to make art anywhere if you are resourceful enough. Taking their company name from the abandoned squash courts they shot their first shorts on, they are a great example of the grass-roots filmmaking that our festival is set up to encourage.

Their interest is in those who live on the fringes of society is sincere: the production and creative team relocated to southern Louisiana and inhabited the local surroundings that their cast came from. On a micro-budget, the crew set up base in a defunct petrol station. Here is Zeitlin giving a tour of their base for The Creators Project. Filming was a survival test in itself; the BP oil rig explosion happened on the first day and, throughout, the crew had to contend with the clean-up operation when shooting in nearby waters. Zeitlin tells The Creators Project that the landscape was so wild that they were constantly battling with the grasses and foliage to make space for the film’s giant set pieces, one example of which is Zeitlin’s broken-down Chevrolet – repurposed for Hushpuppy’s boat, as seen above.

The cast is comprised of local residents who were complete newcomers to the film scene. The story goes that Dwight Henry, a local baker, only agreed to take the part of Wink if they rehearsed during the midnight baker’s hours. What I love most about this company is their ethos of being receptive to the environment and its local population rather than being imposing or bullish. Their respect for the environment and admiration of its people is palpable.

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Cinematography by Ben Richardson

It is this process of grappling with the surroundings that makes the tale so honest and authentic. Politically charged, it documents the post-Katrina devastation whilst also offering an insight into the mind of a six-year-old. It is the most moving film I’ve seen in quite a while.

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