Cinema has always been a contradictory art form, resting in a unique space between fantasy and reality. This apparent paradox gives rise to what is often called "the magic of cinema": we believe in the reality of the image on the screen, even though we know what we are seeing is not real at all. That's what gives cinema the power to make us believe that, while we are watching a movie, men can have superpowers, strange animals can exist, and people can come back from the dead.
The magic of cinema is beautifully illustrated in Beasts of the Southern Wild, a movie by American filmmaker Benh Zeitlin that received four Oscar nominations this year.
On one level, it's a naturalistic tale of a young girl and her father struggling to survive a gigantic flood in the Louisiana wetlands. But there is also a fantasy element: a group of huge, porcine beasts released from the melting polar ice-caps to take nature's revenge on humanity for its bad management of the environment. The skill of the filmmakers ensures that the leaps from reality to fantasy feel natural and part of the same world.
The story, which is based on the play Juicy and Delicious by co-screenwriter Lucy Alibar, is fully fictitious, but seemingly has its genesis in Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans in 2005. It's set in the Bathtub, an isolated place cut off from the world by levees. The Bathtub is peopled by a group who live close to nature in an almost primitive fashion. When the area is flooded, six-year-old Hushpuppy is forcefully tutored by her father Wink in the ways of survival. As Hushpuppy and the other survivors bide their time, trying to get by until the waters recede, a group of prehistoric creatures called aurochs bear down on them from afar.
The story is loose, and serves as both a coming-of-age narrative about a young African American, and an ecological tale about humankind's mistreatment of the environment. Thirty-year-old Zeitlin, who lives in Westchester County in New York state, says he worked hard to balance the realistic elements with the fantasy sequences. "The idea was always that the film was going to be set in the real world. But we were going to experience the real world from the point of view of someone who is six years old," he says.
"When you are six, reality is not as cut and dried as it is when you are 40. Your imagination, and the things that are unreal around you, spill into your life, and affect your emotions and your sense of reality.
"There is a real event in the film and the film is set in the real world. But we experience it in a heightened fashion. The whole movie really emerges from that idea."
The aurochs, the giant pig-like beasts that add an extra threat to the beleaguered population of the Bathtub, were carefully designed to fit with the naturalistic feeling of the film. They were not created by computer graphics. Instead, special effects designer Ray Tintori adapted Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs by affixing "costumes" to them.
The result works surprisingly well. "We weren't really interested in scientifically representing what a creature like an auroch would look like. It was more important to represent them the way Hushpuppy saw them. She didn't have access to scientific textbooks, or anything like that," says Zeitlin.
"We created the aurochs by using real animals, and used a method of dressing them up in costumes. I like to think that is what Hushpuppy would have done if she was making the film, rather than being a character in it."
Zeitlin hopes that viewers will use their imaginations to interpret the meaning behind the aurochs' advance. But he says it has a specific meaning for him: history and evolution. The aurochs mark Hushpuppy's growing realisation that not only is she a part of a bigger world than the Bathtub, but also part of history. As in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which began at the dawn of humankind and then fast-forwarded to the space age, Zeitlin uses Hushpuppy to illustrate that our personal histories stretch back to a dim and distant time.
The aurochs appear as mythological beasts in a cave painting, and that sets the scene for their entrance. "The aurochs resonate with the ancient paintings on the cave walls," says Zeitlin. "Hushpuppy thinks the cavemen are like her. She sees herself as a descendant of the cavemen, and as someone who is in the same situation as them. The cave dwellers' way of life became extinct, and Hushpuppy also sees her community as one which is on the verge of extinction.
"She's thinking about how her home will be remembered when it is gone. She thinks that, billons of years later, people are going to be able to look back and discover what her people were about, and what their culture meant. They are going to exist in the world as part of its story, and in the memory of people in the future," Zeitlin adds.
The swampy locations and the aurochs provide strong images. But Hushpuppy, played by Quvenzhane Wallis, who was six at the time, is more than a match for them. Her diminutive frame and mop of wiry hair dominate every frame she is in.
Zeitlin says he cast Wallis after auditioning many other actresses for the role. He says that she is genuinely acting, and not simply being herself. "She's nothing like Hushpuppy in real life. It's very much a performance. Quvenzhane is rambunctious and hilarious, a very modern girl who likes her i-Pod." In a short interview, Wallis, who is now nine, says she thought her character was "a bit like me. Benh [Zeitlin] would tell me a few things [about her], and I would try to go along with him."
Beasts of the Southern Wild looks like an auteurist work, but Zeitlin, who cites German filmmaker Werner Herzog and American master John Cassavetes as his inspirations, says it's a collaborative film. The movie was made with the collective Court 13, which includes many different kinds of artists, not just filmmakers.
"We work with a lot of artists, not just people from the film world," Zeitlin says. "The collective is full of people who are independent creative spirits. That means there is more creativity up on the screen than just the director's vision."
The production was, on one level, a big scavenger hunt through the swamps and forests of Louisiana, he says. "The collective worked with what it could find. We used a lot of recycled materials. My truck blew up one day, and we used the wreckage to make Hushpuppy's boat. Nothing went to waste."
It's a message that the film's ecologically minded scavengers will surely agree with.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is screening now