With his Oscar-nominated debut feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild, director Benh Zeitlin brought to the screen a vision of Louisiana that combined the unique flavors and textures of his adopted home state with the magical twists and turns of a fairy tale. As a kid growing up in New York City, his first formative encounters with the American South were in the work of Les Blank, a fiercely independent documentary filmmaker who traveled around the United States to capture its diverse traditions and folkways. While Zeitlin was in town for the release of his new film Wendy, a sumptuously photographed reimagining of Peter Pan shot in Antigua, he talked with us about the loving, humanistic view of America he discovered in Blank’s films and the profound impact it has had on his life and art.
This article about the opening sequence of Dry Wood, a richly detailed portrait of Southwest Louisiana’s black Creole community that Blank made in 1973, is edited together from our conversation with Zeitlin.
My relationship with Les Blank’s films dates back to long before I moved to Louisiana as an adult. My parents are folklorists who run a nonprofit in New York called City Lore, and they used to put on a film festival. I had my first experiences watching these documentaries at around the age of eight or nine, when I would tag along with my family to various cultural events—a freakshow on Coney Island, a Chinese opera, a gospel concert—probably because they couldn’t find a babysitter. I remember thinking his films were so different from anything I’d seen before; they were the first real movies I’d encountered that weren’t videos made for kids. What struck me about Dry Wood at the time was the chicken chase at the beginning. My mom is from South Carolina, and we have family games at Christmas that involve chasing chickens and pigs. Watching Dry Wood, I realized there were other people who shared these traditions I’d grown up with.
I lost track of his movies until I was older and became a filmmaker, and then I went back and rewatched everything. You can tell from his style just how much time he’s taken to enter a place that’s not his own before starting to film the people there, the time that went into building those relationships. His aesthetic feels so in sync with the customs he’s depicting, which are not regimented at all. When you see a parade in this movie, it’s not made up of marching soldiers; it’s chaotic, with everyone going in different directions. There’s a frenetic energy that he’s trying to replicate through cinema, in the editing and the sound and the camerawork. Nothing is clean or perfect; the edges are showing. You see characters looking directly at the camera, and sometimes they’re even laughing at him. There’s no sense that he’s trying to impose his own vision on things.
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