How Benh Zeitlin Made Beasts of the Southern Wild

The Oscar nominee for Best Director transformed filmmaking as he assembled a new myth out of Hurricane Katrina

(Ethan Hill)
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Ed. Note (January 10, 2013): Congratulations to Benh Zeitlin and the cast and crew of Beasts of the Southern Wild for their four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Zeitlin.

Sprawling on the edge of a levee along a deadened twist of the Lower Mississippi is a compound that, from 1894 to 1999, was the only leprosy hospital on the U.S. mainland. It’s late summer and, at my suggestion, Benh Zeitlin is exploring the facility that once housed hundreds of patients, many of whom were disfigured, feared and shunned.

Clouds mass in the Louisiana sky as the 30-year-old filmmaker roams the long masonry arcades with Mr. Pete, a leprosy survivor who’s lived on the grounds since 1951. Mr. Pete describes the stigma of the disease—his own hands are clawed—and the bitter pain of ostracism and isolation. “Lots of the afflicted were brought here against their will,” he says of the leprosarium, which for its first six decades was as much penal colony as sanctuary. Snatched from their homes, some sufferers arrived in hearses; others, sealed boxcars. Some came in handcuffs, even leg irons. “If you ran away, you had to stay away,” says Mr. Pete. “Get captured and you were locked up in a cell at the hospital jail for 30 days.”

Zeitlin listens to him with compassion and sympathy. The eldest child of folklorists who once worked for the Smithsonian Institution, he’s open, reflective and more than occasionally ironic. “That place sounded like a hellish version of a refugee camp,” Zeitlin later says. He’s nicely tousled, with a smooth, unlined face and clear eyes. “Outcasts were kept penned from the rest of society by well-intentioned people with a mandate to be humane. Essentially, an extreme example of what happens at the evacuation center in Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Beasts is Zeitlin’s feature film debut, a small miracle of deliberate outsider art that entranced and exhilarated audiences during its limited theatrical run this past summer. Unruly, unbound by studios or the usual Hollywood conventions, this paean to childhood perception and human resilience exists in its own hermetically sealed world, physically and metaphorically. Zeitlin made the movie on a $1.8 million shoestring in southern Louisiana with hand-held 16-millimeter cameras, jury-rigged sets, untrained actors and a grass-roots collective of artists from around the country. By ignoring received wisdom and gambling on his own powers of invention, he offered further proof that innovation is about breaking rules.

Pitched between realism and folktale, the plot of Beasts involves the inhabitants of a damp, squalid bayou enclave—the Bathtub—beyond the levees that keep the delta dry. It’s a mixed-race utopia uncorrupted by politics, religion or consumerism. “The Bathtub is a harsh place to live,” Zeitlin says. “The residents give up the comforts of modern civilization, and what they gain is a freedom and unity that would be impossible on the other side of the wall.”

The locals are under siege from a hurricane and a government determined to pry them from their homesteads and relocate them to an emergency shelter. In their struggle against modernity, these proud fringe-dwellers are, to quote a rave review in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “willing to fight all day for their right to eat and drink, sing and stumble all night.”

The film has earned the adoration of critics, who tend to sprinkle on superlatives like an Italian waiter working a pepper mill. “Hauntingly beautiful both visually and in the tenderness it shows toward the characters,” wrote Manohla Dargis of the New York Times in January after a screening at Sundance, where Beasts won the Grand Jury Prize as well as the cinematography award. At Cannes a few months later, it snagged the prestigious Caméra d’Or, which recognizes the finest feature by a rookie director. Beasts, marveled Richard Corliss in Time magazine, “speaks in words and images of a clarity and vision nearly unique in today’s independent cinema.”

Zeitlin’s vision is something of a cross between The Tempest and The Odyssey—as if told by Vardaman Bundren, the child in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying who thinks his dead mother is a fish. In this case, the child is named Hushpuppy, played with feral eloquence by 6-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis. When not warming up cat food for dinner—lighting the stove with a blowtorch!—the dandelion-haired heroine ministers to her pig, chickens and rough-but-loving father, Wink (Dwight Henry—a New Orleans baker by trade), who’s grievously ill.

Alone in her tumbledown trailer, Hushpuppy ponders the nature of time and her place in the cosmos. “The whole universe depends on everything fittin’ together just right,” she says. Her fervent imagination fills the screen with magic, from the motes glowing in the air to visions of aurochs, fearsome prehistoric behemoths that will reclaim the earth as ice caps melt. She’s convinced that animals and her absent mother—who she’s told “swam away” years earlier—talk to her, sometimes in code.

About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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