- Category: Culture
- Created on Friday, 03 August 2012 11:08
- Written by Mountain Girl
"Part Swiss Family Robinson, part dystopia, and part revolutionary utopia, Beasts... is a visionary film that features poor people living together in interracial, intergenerational harmony. They band together to create a communal life in an area south of New Orleans that they call The Bathtub, and they fight the system in a variety of ways – including violence – to avoid getting sucked into the sterile, controlled environment of a state-funded shelter. This is a film that celebrates resistance."
The following was written for Kasama.
by Mountain Girl
"As post-Katrina New Orleans is proving, it's not simply a matter of building levees; far more important is constructing the basic political architecture to decide who will be protected, and how." John McQuaid, “Storm Warning: The Unlearned Lessons of Katrina,” Mother Jones, August 2007
"In the fall of 2007 the number of active trailers still numbered more than 50,000. By February 2008, when CDC tests confirmed high levels of formaldehyde in FEMA trailers across Louisiana and Mississippi, FEMA began an aggressive push to shut down its trailer parks and 'relocate families into safer and more permanent housing.'" Deepa Fernandez, “Three Years after Hurrican Katrina, Homelessness Looms,” Mother Jones, September 2008
“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the visionary film by Benh Zeitlin which projects a post-Katrina world outside the protection of the levees, rejects the notion of a “basic political architecture” and instead depicts a society of outsiders which embodies that rejection.
Part Swiss Family Robinson, part dystopia, and part revolutionary utopia, Beasts has met with high critical praise (at Sundance and Cannes, two major film festivals), wild enthusiasm on the part of early audiences, and negative criticism from some on the left who are concerned about parental physical and emotional abuse, negative stereotyping, and alcoholism.
One established film critic declared that the Republicans must be jumping for joy because the film is all about people being self-sufficient and thus not needing government handouts. These are very narrow interpretations, and I hope to refute them and encourage Kasama readers to get out and see the movie … SOON.
The main promotional Website, complete with soundtrack and live Twitter feed, is at www.welcometothebathtub.com.
In spite of its critical acclaim and glowing praise in social media outlets, distributors are not booking the film broadly, at least not yet. It opened in the Chicago area at two art houses, and some weeks later, it has yet to open at any theater in either the south or west side neighborhoods, where the vast majority of Black Chicagoans live.
The filmmakers are encouraging grassroots support, asking people to work on outreach through their event Website, www.beastsofthesouthernwild.com. And even though esteemed film critic emeritus Roger Ebert gave the film four stars and predicted it to be among the top nominees for Best Picture, it has been a slow process of expansion.
The event Website features accounts of the film getting wildly enthusiastic reception in Guanajuato and the Ukraine, and also lists all the new venues where the film will be starting, and all the ones that continue to show it.
What is the power of this small indie film? Why are so many people not simply liking it, but seeing it numerous times?
It’s a visionary film that features poor people living together in interracial, intergenerational harmony. They band together to create a communal life in an area south of New Orleans that they call The Bathtub, and they fight the system in a variety of ways – including violence – to avoid getting sucked into the sterile, controlled environment of a state-funded shelter. This is a film that celebrates resistance. Combined with a stirring soundtrack largely written by the filmmakers themselves but also featuring indigenous music of the southern Bayou, the film stirs powerful emotions. In celebrating resistance, can it also inspire to action?
I first saw Beasts of the Southern Wild the day I heard a review of it on the radio, and listened to the director, and heard Hushpuppy’s small but feisty voice. I had to go see it immediately, that day. I was so struck by the power of the film that I wanted to be able to discuss it with others, so one week later eight of us met up at the art house theater (!) where it was playing. Four couples included social democrats, Maoists, and anarchists. Three of the four of the couples had children, the fourth couple worked with children. Much of our discussion centered on that aspect of the film.
“Beasts” was made on what by Hollywood standards is a shoestring budget: somewhere under two million dollars. The two main characters are played by ordinary people who never acted a day in their lives, and were discovered when the director cast his net wide in a search for authenticity. The heroine is a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy, and we experience the story through her eyes, hearing her voice in the narration.
Remember those criticisms?
The parental abuse (Wink hits Hushpuppy at one point), emotional abuse (Wink yells at Hushpuppy), parental neglect (Hushpuppy runs all over by herself), and stereotypical depiction of poor people (as a bunch of drunks who drink their way through the big storm)?
Here’s how I see it: There are a number of children in this community, and they run free, observing nature, listening to it, paying attention. Hushpuppy continually picks up birds to listen to their heartbeat, thinking that this is some kind of code, a communication from the bird to her. The connection with nature is perhaps the main theme of the movie. Who still pays attention? Those on the very bottom of society, outside its “protection” and therefore depending for their very survival on paying attention: to preparation for flood, for fire, for environmental destruction, and for eventual death.
There is education in The Bathtub, beyond living in and paying attention to nature: a one-room schoolhouse is filled with aquariums, terrariums, biological specimens, and wall charts., and the kids sit and learn from a strong, wise woman who teaches them about history, about nature, and about extinct beasts known as aurochs Her most important lesson, which the children learn in their daily lives as well as from her, is twofold: they must learn to live on their own, as they someday will have to, and they must always take care of those smaller than they are.
The charge of parental abuse is a serious one, and there’s no denying that Wink’s parenting methods do not qualify him for the Parent of the Year award. But I think there’s a class basis to criticism of him that’s important to note: middle-class intellectuals are raising their children with a different set of expectations than poor people who have grown up having to fight for their survival and who want their children to make it to adulthood alive. As Wink yells at Hushpuppy after he has saved her from a fire that she accidentally started, “MY job is to keep YOU from dying!” Wink is trying to prepare his tiny daughter for the day when he will no longer be there to protect her. He is doing this as a single parent, without benefit of a college education, Dr. Spock, Piaget, or any of the host of other wise pediatric advisers many of us relied on in raising our kids. As he says, his job is make sure she knows what the dangers are. That’s how he’ll keep her from dying.
In The Bathtub, parental responsibility is spread among the adults, with different ones taking on nurturing roles from time to time. At one of the communal meals – overflowing with a never-ending supply of shellfish -- one of the men starts to teach Hushpuppy how to use her knife to crack open a shell. Wink jumps in, and yells, “NO, Hushpuppy! NO!” and insists that she use her bare hands. He wants her to be able to survive even when she can’t get her hands on utensils.
This film is full of strong women: the teacher, the memory of Hushpuppy’s mother (long gone), the woman who resists mightily when officials try to subdue her, and then the little girls, led by Hushpuppy. The film contains references to violent resistance, as well as graphic depictions of it. We can only cheer when we witness these, though there are unintended consequences.
The bayou way of “letting the good times roll” is clearly in evidence, complete with Cajun fiddlers early on in the film. Some have dismissed the film as being about alcoholics, but this is not the full story. Poor people outside the system have no way of getting prescriptions for or paying for tranquilizers, anti-anxiety meds, sleeping aids, or any of the myriad other medications available to those of us with health insurance, whether we pay for it or the government pays for it. Alcohol – home-distilled, in this case – is the only available painkiller.
The theme of environmental destruction, and of actions having consequences, is strong throughout. The polar ice caps are melting, and we see dramatic footage of this, intercut with images of the consequences unleashed. What those consequences are, and how they play out, will have to remain for those who go and see the film. I hope there will be more discussion of this here on Kasama.
I think one reason people are embracing this film so totally is that it really does speak to us on many levels, not just the rational. The soundtrack reaches down and grabs us in the non-rational part of the brain to engage emotions. It’s big, and sweeping, as appropriate to the scope of the film, which takes on very big questions – environmental destruction, climate change, historical responsibility – through a very small lens – Hushpuppy’s observations. Hushpuppy has a sense of history that is awe-inspiring. She draws with chalk or crayon on things in her house, because she wants children in the future to know that “once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.” Perhaps most importantly, she is courageous in spite of her size. This is a memorable heroine.
After the first time I saw this film, I walked out with my inspiration giving way to how-to questions: How did they get their vitamins? How did they get their water? What about waste disposal? And on and on … until I realized that “Beasts of the Southern Wild” offers up not a blueprint, but a vision: of post-capitalist survival, of global destruction, and of resistance. It’s up to us to devise the plan, if in fact that’s possible to do in advance. Be resourceful, take care of others, keep from dying, and celebrate life.