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Beasts of the climate change apocalypse

Beasts of the Southern Wild (M). Director: Benh Zeitlin. Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry. 93 minutes

In the 2008 short film Glory at Sea, a discarded street sign designates a patch of dull ocean 'Elysian Fields'. During one scene that occurs late in the 2012 feature film Beasts of the Southern Wild a neon sign similarly names a sleazy bar for the afterlife of Greek mythology — the resting place for the souls of the virtuous. Both films, written and directed by Zeitlin, juxtapose grim reality with elements of the metaphysical and even miraculous, with the hope of human flourishing providing the catalyst for transcendence.

Glory at Sea is a fable about post-Katrina New Orleans. A forgotten community of survivors unite to construct a rudimentary boat from their salvaged belongings, and journey in it to rescue their missing loved ones from beneath the sea. Zeitlin is a deft hand at merging the mundane and the mystical; 'When the rain started, I put on my spaghetti helmet so my head wouldn't get wet,' says his child narrator as the film begins. 'But that didn't do a bit of good. I went down to the bottom of the ocean, where the dead people go.'

Raw cinematography, artless amateur performances and a stirring DIY score enhance rather than diminish the poetry of the language and imagery. It is easy to believe the gritty and impoverished world that Zeitlin creates is separated from metaphysical realms by a porous membrane, and that the living and the dead can pass between the two, enabled by faith and determination. It's a poignant way to highlight the social injustice experienced by the characters while also lauding the resilience of the human spirit without resorting to cliche and sentimentality.

These stylistic elements, along with many of the film's themes, are employed and expanded to similar effect in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Here it is climate change, rather than an isolated weather event, that compounds the marginalisation experienced by the characters. Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Wallis) lives in the ramshackle bayou village Bathtub, in a bungalow adjacent to that inhabited by her neglectful and fiery (though increasingly sickly) father. When melting polar ice caps cause the sea levels to rise, they are engulfed by a devastating flood.

It is often the poor who suffer most when disaster strikes, and Beasts of the Southern Wild posits an implicit moral argument for the more privileged citizens of the world to take responsibility for humanity's impact on the environment. In one sequence the band of survivors destroys a dam that keeps the nearby city dry and the village immersed; they've been not only neglected but shunned by their wealthier neighbours, and resort to civil disobedience not to be heard, but to survive. Zeitlin's indictment of the prosperous West is hard to miss.

Beasts is billed as a 'fantasy drama'; indeed there is a twist of magical realism, in which the melting icecaps have released into the world a quartet of aurochs, giant and ferocious prehistoric cattle, who stampede accross the face of the earth heralding the end of the world. In the context of the film's ecological themes, their heavy footfalls might resonate with the phrase 'global footprint'; they are runaway consumerism or commercial or political or otherwise purely selfish interests that care for nothing but their own advancement.

As much as it is an ecological fable, Beasts is also simply a coming of age story for Hushpuppy, who must make sense of her relationship with her father and her grief for her deceased mother, while taking responsibility for her own destiny and contributing actively to the life of her community. She is memorably, stunningly portrayed by Wallis, as a character with a child's mind but an adult's wisdom won through hard experience, and a fearlessness that asserts itself even in terror. She is the very picture of human resilience under siege.

 The picture, perhaps, of the vulnerability and resilience of the marginalised in general. Ultimately the events of the film bring her to a close encounter with the aurochs themselves. Staring into her face, the beast is stilled.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hurricane Katrina, climate change



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