SPRING 2 012
SUNDANCE NOTEBOOK B. RUBY RICH
Amid wild mountain weather that alternated ski-denying
snowless peaks with crazy blizzard white-outs threatening
avalanches, the Sundance Film Festival (January 19–29)
managed its annual trick of getting everybody excited about
cinema and its offscreen variations.
For this writer, the festival’s U.S. dramatic competition
is usually the least exciting section, packed as it can be
with formulaic offerings from wannabe directors seeking
a contract. But the 2012 edition included one standout
exception to this approximate rule. The winner of the
jury’s grand prize, Beasts of the Southern Wild, provides an
intense vision of community and apocalypse in a Louisiana
neighborhood known as the Bathtub. Director Benh Zeitlin,
working from a play by his longtime friend and co-scenarist
Lucy Alibar, delivers a monumentally original fable set in a
place outside of time where a feral sort of civilization does
battle with the elements. The ﬁlm’s six-year-old African
American heroine, Hushpuppy, is played by Quvenzhané
Wallis. The tiny Wallis audaciously bounded onto the Park
City stage after the screening to proclaim her readiness
for movie stardom, and indeed she dominates Beasts with
fearless energy (and wild hair).
On the “wrong” side of the New Orleans levees,
penniless and often inebriated members of an isolated
community occupy ramshackle dwellings in the watery ﬂood
plains. Black and white folks mix and mingle with such
nonchalance that you have to wonder why the world really
isn’t that way. Hushpuppy and her daddy Wink (Dwight
Henry) face, together and alone, the challenges of life,
death, alcohol, ﬂoods, and the horror of FEMA-like shelters.
Beasts manages to give their trials and tribulations truly
mythopoeic proportions as the ﬁlm’s collaborative crew and
nonprofessional actors make this constructed world their own.
At one point, Hushpuppy and her pals wash up at a ﬂoating
brothel named Elysian Fields (really) where a hilarious
inversion of whorehouse custom ensues: it’s the children,
not men, whom the prostitutes clutch to their breasts. Finally
Hushpuppy returns home to face the ﬁerce Aurochs, giant
beasts of a primordial past that rampage digitally through the
landscapes of her fears. “When you’re small, you gotta ﬁx what
you can,” she observes, her voiceovers guiding us through
a universe rendered impossibly lush and vibrant by Ben
Richardson’s brilliant and jury-rewarded cinematography.
How to describe such a ﬁlm? I herewith abandon adjectives
for analogies: Tree of Life meets Whale Rider meets Fellini
Satyricon meets Where the Wild Things Are.
Zeitlin’s ﬁlm resonated uncannily with Julie Dash’s now-
classic Daughters of the Dust, which premiered at Sundance
in 1991 and returned in 2012 after a ﬁne UCLA restoration.
It remains a magical production that, like newcomer Beasts
of the Southern Wild, conjures up a watery universe haunted
by the past and threatened by the outside world. Equally
poetic and visually original, Daughters of the Dust was ahead
of its time: what a difference two decades can make. Beasts, I
wanted to say, you’re descended from Daughters.
More familiar beasts appeared in Bear 71, a captivating
(in more senses than one) installation in the New Frontiers
section. Made by Leanne Allison and Jeremy Mendes and
produced by the National Film Board of Canada, it ﬁlled
a gallery with data screens charting the movements of wild
animals tracked by radio-transmission collars. Colored
symbols moved incessantly across the walls and screens
showed remote footage shot by motion-sensing cameras
out in the wild. These animal surveillance tapes recorded
moving pictures of a world from which we’re divorced, a
world that exists outside of human range. The installation
recognized our alienated detachment by incorporating a live
feed of visitors into its domain. Accustomed to a position of
Film Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 3, pps 66–69, ISSN 0015-1386, electronic, ISSN 1533-8630. © 2012 by the Regents of the University of California.
All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s
Rights and Permissions website, http://www.ucpressjournals.com/reprintinfo.asp. DOI: 10.1525/FQ.2012.65.3.66
Tracks of the bear
Bear 71. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.
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