Day four of the Keswick Unconventional Film Club found us watching Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin’s extraordinary magic realist film, which is unlike any other I can think of. During or after our discussion yesterday evening, one person compared aspects of it to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and another compared it to Lord of the Flies, yet as a whole it is radically different from either of those.
Six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis plays the central character of Hushpuppy, who lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in extreme poverty on an island, which they call the Bathtub, in a Louisiana bayou. There is a debate to be had over whether the film romanticises poverty or celebrates human dignity even in the most deprived circumstances. On the latter view, Beasts of the Southern Wild portrays Hushpuppy’s world as immensely rich in the things which matter most: friendship, joy, freedom, a close relationship with the natural world.
Yet there is a darker side to life in the Bathtub: alcohol abuse is clearly rife (which seems to be portrayed in a positive, often humorous light) and we never see a complete family. Hushpuppy and her father have a particularly dysfunctional domestic set-up. Her mother left some time ago and Hushpuppy lives in one squalid house while her father lives in another. Much of Wink’s communication with his daughter comprises of shouting. Life is not as harmonious as we’re meant to think.
We had some interesting discussion about the way writer-director Benh Zeitlin included the local community in his film, using entirely first-time actors and employing locals as crew. It is, arguably, a holistic approach to film-making which genuinely values these people. At the same time, some people felt a little uncomfortable, arguing that the screenplay still has a very middle-class perspective, and was not truly representing the community.
Nevertheless, Beasts of the Southern Wild raises interesting questions about brokenness and death. Hushpuppy’s world may already look very broken to us, but she doesn’t see it that way. So when, in an angry outburst she expresses her wish that her daddy was dead, and hits him on the chest causing him to collapse, she believes that she is responsible. She doesn’t understand that he is ill, presumably with some heart condition. Nor does she understand that the rumble of thunder and the announcement of a coming storm are unconnected with her actions. In Hushpuppy’s mind, everything is connected and she has broken the world.
The approach of the strange, fierce aurochs from their millennia-long frozen imprisonment in the Antarctic symbolises the approach of Wink’s death. Hushpuppy is scared of them both – until she and some friends swim out to a strange boat, the skipper of which tells the little girl that it will take them wherever she needs to go.
The place they end up in – called Elysium Fields – seems to be some kind of bar and brothel. The time there is filmed very dreamily, and Hushpuppy encounters a woman who, we cannot help wondering, could even be the little girl’s mother. We are never told this, but the woman’s working of ‘magic’ (with fired gator) and her tenderness towards Hushpuppy, as well as her warning that life is not easy, somehow empowers Hushpuppy to return to the Bathtub and face both the aurochs and her daddy’s death with courage.
Was this strange encounter in the Elysium Fields a truly magical experience, or just how it seems to a six-year-old? Is she strengthened spiritually, or merely encouraged by human love? It could be read either way. Are the aurochs simply in Hushpuppy’s mind, or do others see them too (and if so, what do we make of these creatures which have never existed)? It’s a film which raises many questions, and makes a straightforward and certain interpretation difficult.
In her Film & Bible Blog article on Beasts of the Southern Wild, Sophie Lister makes a fascinating connection with the Bible. Hushpuppy rejects her father and the whole world seems broken as a result; the Bible story is that humanity rejected its father, God, and the whole world was broken as a result (see Genesis 3 and Romans 8:19–25, for example). Hushpuppy’s world is put back into some balance by a new depth of understanding the world; the real world – and the fundamental problem facing humanity – is only fixed through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This, Paul tells us, makes possible the reconciliation of everything (Colossians 1:19–20) – which is, I suspect, what Benh Zeitlin is, without realising, longing for.