Grand Jury prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival and Best Director at the Durban International Film Festival this year, Benh Zeitlin never thought his film Beasts of the Southern Wild would ever travel this far.
Benh Zeitlin fell in love with New Orleans as a teenager, but never considered moving there until he worked on his first short film in 2008.
The New York film-maker’s debut feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild, grew out of that short, Glory at Sea, which was about two men building a boat from the debris of a flood-hit New Orleans to rescue loved ones trapped beneath the sea.
“I was so inspired by the place. It’s a story that resonated with what is happening down there,” said Zeitlin in a telephone interview from New Orleans.
Set in the Louisiana bayou, Beasts is about a girl named Hushpuppy who is trying to deal with her father’s failing health when her home is threatened by the rising waters. It takes a look at the defiance needed to stand up against a destructive force that will destroy your home.
“I became interested in what it would be like to live here and why the people are so drawn to it, including myself, to a place that seems so precarious, that could be taken away at any moment,”
said the 29-year-old.
Shot in 2009 over seven weeks, Beasts took almost three-and-a-half years to make, with an 18-month post-production period. It went through a lengthy editing process as Zeitlin had strict budget constraits and used an army of volunteer students to chop away at the special effects, which are fairly high-end.
During the shoot they had to contend with the oil spill in the Mississippi that arose out of Hurricane Katrina, and subse-quent storms, spills and levying of the river have only reinforced the ecological disaster that is brewing in the delta region.
“It’s a part of the country that’s disappearing and not many people know that,” he said.
Zeitlin took part in multiple artists programmes with the Sundance Institute, including the Director’s Lab, and debuted Beasts at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
It was only completed two days before the screening and he and a group of crew members travelled to Utah for the succesful debut.
Not only was the film lauded by the Grand Jury, but he was honoured with the Vanguard Award which came with a cash grant and mentorship from industry professionals and Sundance staff.
Since then the film has opened on the US circuit and been travelling the global film circuit.
Zeitlin says the response in the US has depended on where Beasts is being shown: “Some people in America think it was shot in Africa.”
The film was shot in a regionally isolated part of North America that few people are familiar with, Terrebonne Parish, about an hour- and-a-half south of New Orleans.
“It’s just a very different culture; people living very close to the land and in tune with nature.
“The culture is not based on money, but being able to fish and provide off the land. It’s something that is virtually non-existent in America.”
At the Cannes Film Festival he won the Fipresci Prize in the Un Certain Regard category as well as the Golden Camera. The film has been shown in official competition at the Sydney Film Festival as well as the Durban International Film Festival.
• Beasts of the Southern Wild opened on Friday.