“Beasts of the Southern Wild: An Intrinsic Perspective on Poverty” by Yael Cohen
Benh Zeitlin first-time feature and critically acclaimed film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, debuted at the 2012 Sundance film Festival, winning the Grand Jury prize. Based partially on a stage play by Lucy Alibar, the film received four awards at the Cannes Festival and was also nominated for four Academy Awards (including best performance by an actress in a leading role, best writing adapted Screenplay, best achievement in directing, and best motion picture of the year). A $1.8 million drama, which funding came from Cinereach, a nonprofit organization that agreed to fund Beasts nearly in its entirety; further support came through grants from the San Francisco Film Society, Sundance, and Japanese broadcaster NHK. In addition, a tax break from the state of Louisiana helped lower the overall costs. The film collected $11.2 million in the U.S. and has enraptured festival audiences across the globe, as it became an immediate sensation. It has been described as a “low-budget film that tackles big human questions” and “challenges what a low-budget movie should look like” (Sluis). Interpreted as a modern folk-tale, Beasts “effectively highlights mythological structures operating in contemporary American society” (Kette). While some critics have denounced it problematic in its “un-reflexive denial of social and political tensions and realities”, for many, it “imparts a grand cinematic experience”, depicting “a richly imagined tale of stubbornness and survival in the face of Mother Nature and Uncle Sam” (Kette, Foundas).
Oscar Lewis’s definition of the “culture of poverty” articulated the emergence of a distinctive culture among the poor, in which they experience limited access to means of development. “The culture of poverty” was seen by Lewis as a sub-culture of the western social order. A culture with a specific structure and rational, its community establishes its own specific way of life. Lewis considered the incorporation of the culture of poverty in national or reform projects and their recognition by national elites the desired solution. In Zeitlin’s Beasts, the inhabitants of “the bathtub” comply to a certain extant with Lewis’s definition of the culture of poverty. However, the film suggests that the disengagement with the major institutions of society is, in fact, what the poor desire. Focusing on Hushpuppy and her father Wink, while showing the habits and ways of life valued in “the bathtub”, the viewer gains an intrinsic point of view on the poor who are portrayed joyous in their condition. In Beasts, the small social system of “the bathtub” appears resourceful and is determined to prosper in their individual space characterized by strong familial and social ties. The larger society, symbolized as water that threatens the welfare of the “bathtub”, fails to provide what is desired for the poor and instead symbolizes what is unwanted. The film’s cinematic techniques, particularly the employment of a Neorealism aesthetic, allow the viewer to experience poverty not only sympathetically, but also as one from within the community. The film communicates a notion of the poor as a marginal sub-culture that whishes to maintain its solidarity. The film questions societal structures and their inadequacy to accommodate social groups of varying needs. Furthermore, it provides the viewer an opportunity to reflect on his own personal assumptions regarding the poor, challenging the ways in which the poor are perceived and are visualized.