It can take a person or a nation time to come to terms with tragedy and trauma – or at least to find a way to talk about it without emotional meltdown. For those who want to tell the stories of tragedy, to reflect on it artistically in some way, it can be a difficult balancing act to know when the time is right. Hurricane Katrina was such a national trauma for the United States – resulting as it did not only in large numbers killed or injured and large scale property damage, but also in a lens being turned on how some parts of America saw themselves in the context of a larger whole. So, the narrative ran, if the victims of Katrina had been white, or richer, or both, action would have been swifter and more sure. This was memorably encapsulated when Kanye West went off-message during a live television fundraiser and told the watching millions that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”. The debate the events sparked about the attitude of the nation’s most powerful to the most disempowered was long-lasting and searching. In some ways you could argue that it’s still rumbling on.
There have been movies dealing with the subject matter, but it hasn’t been a major subject for film-makes. Beasts Of The Southern Wild, based on a stage play, is a film that isn’t about Katrina in name but may as well be. It’s a lyrical, soemtimes surreal, take on the subject. The central character and narrator is the six year old girl Hushpuppy, who lives with her fisherman father in ethnically mixed community of oddballs and misfits. They live in huts on stilts and floating huts-come-shacks in the swamplands of the Deep South. They are cut off from the rest of society – how much of that is their choice and how much that of society is unclear. A catastrophic storm sweeps through the region, transforming the landscape and leaving many missing presumed dead, mourned by their community loudly enjoyed rescued food and alcohol. Hushpuppy’s journey through the post-storm landscape is Odyssey-like; the well-meant forced captivity enacted by medica professionals and social workers as dangerous as the unpredictable landscape. She’s looking for her mother whom she’d long been told by her father was dead, but her sense of life’s interconnectedness means she keeps hope alive.
It’s a beautiful, haunting, almost impressionistic film. Saying what it’s actually about is hard – not because it’s vague, but more because the film is like some grid of lights, different parts of which seem to light up depending on what subject matter you bring near it. Obviously Katrina is there – from a child’s perspective, and all the more memorable for it. Hushpuppy watches as her father goes out into the teeth of storm, shooting wildly to show her he can defend her from it. Issues of race loom large; as does poverty and what we do about it. As well meaning as some offers of assistance are, they create more problems for the ‘beneficiaries’ than they perhaps solve. We’ve seen that elsewhere on this blog in an excellent book which considers how to do concern for the poor which does good, not harm. Gender roles? Yes, they’re in there too. A man trying to support his daughter by himself, and the only way he knows how is trying to turn her into a little version of himself – he insists at times that the way for her to survive in the post-storm world is to become more ‘masculine’ in his own well-intentioned but nonetheless distorted sense of what that means.
On it goes. It’s not a long film, but it’s one the depths of which you could swim in for a long time. It’s a simple, but rewarding story of loss and recovery; and for each viewer to discover for themselves, about much else too as it reverberates and echoes in the days and weeks following.
I watched Beasts Of The Southern Wild the day super-storm Sandy approached the USA’s eastern seaboard, as people were evacuated and warned over a huge area. That evening I saw one unthinking ‘expert’ on a rolling news channel describe Katrina as a ‘peashooter’ next to what the country faced this time. You know what he means, but he contradicted himself as he went on to explain that the damage of Katrina was worse than could be expected from Sandy because of ‘other issues’. As the news rolled and the situation developed, there were reports from waterproof and wind-blown reporters in exposed situations, and analysis of the likely coming structural damage. Meanwhile in a whisper next to the shouted tone of most coverage, one news website reported that contrary to the city authority’s promises, as Sandy neared landfall, New York’s doorways still had people who were homeless sleeping in them.
He who has ears, let him hear.
I rated this movie 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 8/10 on imdb.com