Discovering Parallels: Michael Gottwald shares Beasts of the Southern Wild in Maine
I had the absolute pleasure to travel to Maine with the Film Forward program last week. The mission of Film Forward is to promote cultural dialogue, and I can definitely say that myself, Laura Nix, and our friends from the Sundance Institute (Kristin Feeley, Eva Rinaldi, and Jackie Carlson) had a boisterous dialogue with the people of Maine about our films, their stories, the issues they raise, and so much more. It was less like a dialogue and more like a constant conversation. In fact by the end of the week it was far more than just a verbal exchange -- we were dancing traditional Finnish (by way of Maine) dances, listening to regional accordion music about encounters with moose, perusing a local museum to glimpse into the area's past, eating homemade pastries by our surrogate Maine families, and taking a boat across a high altitude lake to take in the vistas. The fact that we were there while the temperature was perfect and the leaves were changing color was just another bonus.
However, the dialogue always began with the films, and this time we happened to be showing "Beasts of the Southern Wild" to over ten different area high schools. I always mentioned to the students that I particularly love showing the film to schools because high school and college is how film took off for me -- and how I met many of the people with whom I got involved that led to us all making "Beasts." The connection between the predicament of the film's protagonists and the situation in Maine became clear in conversation with the students; it was increasingly evident that these teenagers knew a thing or two about how to prepare for a massive weather event... like the snowstorms that routinely keep them out of school and out of power for days on end. Taking my cue from my producing partner Josh's Film Forward travails, I liked to ask how many of them would stay or go if a big hurricane was set on its path to destroying their home. Even if they admitted they would leave, all could relate to or knew someone who would pursue the idea of staying.
The other question I would pose to them was how they defined their community -- is it based on their family? their circle of friends? is it geographic? After the film this would serve as a launching point for a conversation about the community depicted in the film, The Bathtub, and how it is defined versus how their own community is defined. What I found from the dialogue was that many communities in the area were similarly isolated, but also similarly instilled with a sense of pride. The students would point out other characteristics of The Bathtub they noticed, and we'd talk about how it came to be that way and why.
A real cultural connection that I hadn't even made before hit me when I was at Mount Desert Island High School, in Bar Harbor. The town is on an island, much like the community where we shot much of "Beasts," but I noticed that it was in Acadia National Park, which rang a bell with me. During the screening I did some research and sure enough: the Acadians who had once populated that Maine area of "New France" were the same Acadians that were exiled when Great Britain won control over the region after the French-Indian War, who came down to Louisiana and became Cajuns. The area where we made the film has much Cajun heritage amongst its people -- in fact it was common to run into the same group of French last names -- so from then on I would point out to the students that they could have been looking at some of their distant cousins in the scenes we cast with the local community. Despite the difference in climates between these two sets of Ar-cajuns, it doesn't get much more culturally cohesive than that!
I was routinely struck by how, when we opened up the discussion about "Beasts" to its broader narrative questions and topics, a student would point out something about the film that I had genuinely never heard before. An observation about how one theme played out in an unnoticed way, or a choice in the film that may or may not have been deliberate... At one particular screening, a group of girls approached me still recovering from tears, needing to express how much they loved and were moved by the movie. Many of the teachers at that high school informed me that their county is traditionally recorded as one of the poorest on the eastern side of the Mississippi. While I try to focus on the fact that the fictional community in "Beasts" was a place ostensibly without the presence of money (as opposed to impoverished), they made it explicit for me: many of their kids come from circumstances like those of Hushpuppy (an absent parent, a trying environment). If I have one regret about Film Forward it's that I kept the conversation at that high school focused on community when a more culturally relevant one might have been had by asking about something not cultural at all: their connection to the character of Hushpuppy.
In general, the week doing Film Forward felt very much in keeping with the spirit of how we made the film... but never more so than when we showed the film at the Monson Community Center. Community centers, high schools, churches, and libraries were key in our grassroots approach to getting to know the community where we shot, and also finding the non-professional cast that would be in our film. It felt very fitting to be unpacking issues of identity, isolation, government, faith, strength, and climate in a conversation in a community center in a rural area; it was one of our most enriching discussions. In fact at a certain point one member of the audience even bordered on connecting the questions the film posed to the current government shutdown.
A fantastic thing about Film Forward is that it allows filmmakers to really experience the area and have the cultural dialogue outside of film settings as well. During the Monson Community Center screening, I went across the street to get some barbeque at the local eatery, and proceeded to have a truly pleasant and fascinating conversation with the husband and wife team behind the counter -- Kim and Mike. We were able to give them a DVD the next day, but it was cool to know that we could have that exchange about our life and our work even before they pressed play.
With the ones who had pressed play though, there was even more fun to be had. Annalee Libby, who like a real hero coordinated much of the screenings on the Maine end of things (and who hosted Jackie), treated our group to an evening of Maine food, dance, music, and fun. All I needed was some locally procured syrup, and I was on my way after one heck of a week.