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Simply completing a debut feature is accomplishment enough for most aspiring filmmakers, but Benh Zeitlin has pulled off something fairly miraculous: with Beasts of the Southern Wild, he tells a story that is both mythic and utterly human, transgressive and totally engrossing, and one which has already accumulated mantle’s worth of awards and honors from film festivals around the world. According to the young filmmaker, however, there were a number of elements he had to contend with that made it incredibly difficult to complete his fable about a young girl (played by revelatory newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis) surviving a Katrina-level storm.
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“Water, children and animals are things that fight against the perfect thing that you imagine,” Zeitlin tells THR. “They blow up your plans and the water moves in the opposite direction you’re going and the child runs in the opposite direction. And you have to then find this spontaneity in [the] performance of the actual crew, and it becomes almost like an athletic performance that the crew does in order to capture the film.”
Zeitlin says that the imperfections of that process of improvisation give the end result a substance it might not otherwise have. “It’s almost like a painting that’s got a lot of paint chunks on it and a lot of texture,” he observes. “It just has a different kind of quality to it that tastes different. It’s not like the same meal you’ve had a bunch of different times.”
Beasts of the Southern Wild premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the cinematography award and the Grand Jury prize. At Cannes, the film took home the FIPRESCI prize, the Golden Camera, Prix Regards Jeune and a special mention prize of the Ecumenical Jury. Its sweep of festival prizes falls comfortably in line with the film’s ambitions, which were as primal and universal as they’re seemingly being received.
“I wanted to tell a story about survival,” Zeitlin explains. “And about the tenacity of a group of people that were refusing to leave their land in spite of the world trying to tell them they should leave… and how people hold onto something that is more important than anything else to them.
“I wanted to tell a story about a utopian burst of energy that’s threatened by nature, and how through a culture that’s joyous and celebratory and fierce, you can really defy death.”
Watch the video above for more insights from writer-director Benh Zeitlin about his feature filmmaking debut. Beasts of the Southern Wild opens nationwide June 27.
Video by Spencer Byam-Taylor and Victor Klaus
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