Quvenzhane Wallis and Benh Zeitlin
enjoy the Oscar buzz.
Meet The Nominee
Benh Zeitlin "conquers his beasts" and earns a Best Director
nomination for his first feature film.
LA Jewish Journal
n 2008, while doing research for what
would become his first feature, Beasts
of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin
climbed inside the pickup truck he had
purchased for $500 and drove down each
of the five roads leading to the bayou's
edge about 80 miles south of New Orleans.
At the end of one of those roads, he dis-
covered the Isle de Jean Charles, a remote
fishing village made up of a swampy
enclave of about 20 shacks connected by
planked walkways over brackish water.
Mattresses patched sagging bridges, dis-
carded refrigerators served as wading
pools, and dead cypress trees loomed like
"I got chills because I had been trying
to write about holdouts at the end of the
world, and I sensed that this was truly the
last stand:' Zeitlin said of his post-Hurri-
cane Katrina mindset. "It was almost as if
there was a different kind of air there; the
atmosphere was so salty that everything
rusted, and all the dead trees and shattered
houses had this incredibly apocalyptic feel.
"[In another town], I asked someone
why they didn't try to replant the popula-
tion somewhere else, and they said, 'We
were made by the marsh; we're like this
exotic plant that can't grow anywhere
Zeitlin thought about the dying towns
and their stalwart residents and how they
reminded him of the characters in a play
by his childhood friend Lucy Alibar, titled
"Juicy and Delicious:' in which a child
struggles to achieve a state of grace after
he learns his previously robust father is
"I realized I had two stories that were
both circling around this one emotion:
What do you do when the thing that made
you starts to die in front of you? And how
do you survive the loss of the things that
created you — whether a community or a
The result is Zeitlin's haunting, operatic
independent film, Beasts of the Southern
Wild, a fable about a 6-year-old girl named
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), who is
pondering her place in the universe as her
father ails and her harsh but utopian ham-
let is threatened by a raging storm.
The film won the Grand Jury Prize
at the Sundance Film Festival last year,
the Camera d'Or at Cannes, has four
Independent Spirit Award nominations
and is now enjoying Oscar buzz — with
nominations for Best Picture, Best
Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and
Best Actress (Walsh, 9, the youngest per-
Zeitlin (left) and Wallis (then age 6) on
the set of Beasts of the Southern Wild
son ever to be nominated) — alongside
the likes of such major studio features as
Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty.
Along the way, it's joined the ranks of a
growing number of acclaimed films (think
Life of Pi and The Tree of Life) that tackle
spiritual concerns onscreen.
Zeitlin, 30, called in for an interview
from the stairwell of the New York Public
Library, where he retreats to work on
projects whenever he visits his native New
York. His home these days is a rundown
house on the outskirts of a construc-
tion site in the upper ninth ward of New
Orleans, where, he said, his used car
"I've pretty much lived in varying forms
of shanties or shacks since I moved down
there [around 2006]:' he said.
The heroine of Beasts is left homeless
when a hurricane destroys her detritus-
filled hovel; only on the precipice of
destruction does she come into a kind of
spiritual enlightenment, Zeitlin said.
An important moment is when she
regards the funeral pyre that is cremating
her father and watching the sparks fly out
into the air:' said Zeitlin, who directed
the film and co-authored the script with
Alibar. "She realizes that just because she
cannot see them anymore, they have not
disappeared — in fact, that nothing disap-
pears, but things live on in different ways.
"It's her understanding that while both
her father and her community are going
to be gone from the earth, the wisdom
passed down from them is internalized
in her, and she is now the vessel that will
carry that forward into the future. She
starts to feel like the intangible parts of the
universe are taking care of her, as opposed
to trying to destroy her, and that moment
of enlightenment is related to visions of
what God is."
The funeral scene was influenced by
Jewish thought, Zeitlin said — specifically
the midrash of two ships, one leaving the
harbor as another heads for shore, which
suggests that one should rejoice over the
returning ship, just as one should celebrate
the death of a righteous man. "It's one of
my favorite pieces of wisdom:' Zeitlin said.
Zeitlin's parents, both folklorists, cel-
ebrated all kinds of wisdom and fables;
they studied carnival barkers, traveling
medicine shows and, during frequent trips
to Coney Island, they jotted down histories
of the residents of the local freak show.
Zeitlin remembers hanging out with a
contortionist called the Elastic Man, who
could slither his way through a coat hang-
er, as well as Otis the Frog Boy, who rolled
up and lit cigarettes with his mouth.
"The myth in my own family is that we
had basically one relative who escaped
the pogroms in Russia in a hay cart:' said
Zeitlin, whose father is Jewish and mother
was raised Protestant in North Carolina.
"My father very much studied Jewish
culture and mythology, and he wrote sev-
eral compilations of Jewish stories, folk-
tales and jokes. He was always reinventing
Jewish customs and making sure that the
tradition was very much part of our lives.
"Every Shabbat we all had to bring
a reading or some piece of wisdom
we'd discovered during the week, along
Nominee on page 51
Beasts of the Southern Wild is now
available on DVD and Blu-ray from
Fox Searchlight. The Academy
Awards will be presented on Sunday,
Feb. 24, on ABC (for more, see
"Oscar Time!" on page 46).
February 21- 2013