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On Your Radar: The Beasts of the Southern Wild
by Karen Pecota

Filmmaker/composer/animator Benh Zeitlin brought his film The Beasts of the Southern Wild (based on a stage play by Lucy Alibar) to participate in the Sundance Institute's Directors, Screenwriters and Producers Lab, a real honor. Zeitlin and playwright/storyteller, Lucy Alibar together created a very whimsical, magical and abstract narrative for the silver screen. The splendor of the films’ creativity could easily call for a $100 million budget. Since the independent filmmaker rarely has these resources, The Institute takes-in these types of projects in order to help filmmakers realistically go after a budget that suits their pocketbook. They learn how to tailor their large budget dreams into using resources fitting for an affordable budget still creating a powerful message.  Zeitlin was given the Institute's guidance and tools needed to bring his project to fruition. The screenwriter's lab helped the playwright, Lucy Alibar, transition her material to screenwriting using different transitions with the story best suited for film. The director's lab assisted Zeitlin with how to make the story's creative ideas grow from a solid foundation. The producer's lab was the guide that showed Zeitlin how to package the world of his film into a realistic plan to succeed. The lessons Zeitlin and Alibar learned were invaluable to the extent that their film was awarded the Sundance/NHK International Filmmakers Award.

Zeitlin says, "Alibar's plays are written like delicious concoctions of food, magic, and love, Southern Style." He always wanted to make one of her plays into a short film but realized that the crazy world which she creates needs to be elevated to a full-feature to give her art form the proper showcase. Zeitlin adds, "Alibar creates characters with a specific kind of sweetness, and subjected to a kind of love so touching it might appear to be cruel if you weren't laughing so hard."  The style of their collaboration is so unique that one might not understand the story at times from the dialogue but to marvel at the big picture is the captivating factor to endear the audience.

Down on the Louisiana bayou, situated on levee territory is a bayou shrimping community, self-contained and long forgotten by the outside world. Its inhabitants don't rightly know this fact or care. Each member of the community tends to his own but if need be, a helping hand to others will be given. Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana) is one who gives back to the community every day, especially to children. She is the community school teacher educating her students about natural selection, Global warming and ecological changes that could bring more change to their little community than desired. Her daily message, "Learn to live with one another and adapt!" Every day of teaching Miss Bathsheba sends her class home with the words, "Ya'all learn how to survive." Six-year old Hushpuppy (Quvwnzhane Wallis) let's Miss Bathsheba’s words go in one ear and out the other, while laughing with her classmates as they try to make sense of the warning. They're just kids! And, love their teacher as she them. Thus, the reason for Miss Bathsheba’s words is because she knows that while they are still children, they are called upon to live as adults, caring for their messed-up families in the slums of the bayou. She is well aware that education and encouragement from a mentor will be their guide for survival.

A mighty storm hales the levee territory pushing a large portion of the community to seek higher ground. Hushpuppy and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) along with his moonshine drinking buddies make a pact to wait out the beasts of the winds, rains and horrific noises of clatter to protect their frail homes.  In the midst of the storm Wink becomes deathly ill while their home is sinking. Hushpuppy is frightened! How can she survive? How does she adapt? Where does she go for help? She understands that the universe needs to fit together somehow but witnesses her world collapsing around her from a chain of events taking place caused by a storm, a sinking habitat, and Wink's illness. Hushpuppy must lean into Miss Bathsheba’s teachings and her environment to tame the Beasts of the Southern Wild.