Beast It

"Beasts of the Southern Wild," a 2012 film directed by Benh Zeitlin and based on a play written by Lucy Alibar, is a film about loss, courage, climate changes and human perseverance in southern Louisiana. The fictional island in the film, the "Isle de Charles Doucet," was inspired by real communities in Louisiana's Terrebonne Parish such the rapidly eroding Isle de Jean Charles, threatened by erosion, hurricanes and rising sea levels.

LSU campus
The fictional island in the film, the "Isle de Charles Doucet," was inspired by real communities in Louisiana's Terrebonne Parish such the rapidly eroding Isle de Jean Charles.

The film has received much acclaim, nominated for several 2013 Academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. But the wonder of this film goes deeper than its acting and beautiful cinematography. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” depicts the many realities of a community on the edge, faced with drastic environmental changes and yet held together by a strong and rich culture.

Zeitlin, along with Glen Pitre, known for such acclaimed films as “Belizaire the Cajun,” will visit LSU on March 15 in a free event open to the public. “From Belizaire to Beasts: Louisiana Folklife and Filmmaking,” will take place in from 7-9 p.m. in the Dalton J. Woods Auditorium in the Energy, Coast & Environment Building. More information about the event can be found at

Inspired by Zeitlin’s portrayal of important environmental changes in southern Louisiana, three LSU faculty members shared their thoughts about the film and what it means for Louisiana and the Gulf Coast Region.

When Aurochs are More Than Monsters

“Monsters are never the real monsters in any tale like this. They represent obstacles one must overcome to proceed, or succeed, on one’s journey.”

Tracy Stephenson Shaffer is an associate professor in the Communication Studies Department at LSU, where she researches and teaches courses in performance studies and film. Shaffer is a past chair of the Performance Studies Division of the National Communication Association and 2009 recipient of the Southern States Communication Association’s Performance Studies Division “Scholar of the Year” Award. Shaffer serves as the producing director of the HopKins Black Box, an experimental laboratory theatre at LSU, where she also directs original live performances. Her most recent productions, “The Life and Times of King Kong” (2007), “Nonfiction Zombie” (2009), and “The Adventures of Little Red Riding Hood” (2011), examined various meanings and uses of particular “monsters” in popular culture. She was recently the keynote speaker at The Patti Pace Performance Festival where her talk considered the place of fairytales in popular culture.

LSU campus
The main character, the 6-year-old girl Hushpuppy, is the narrator, so we see the world through her eyes.

Q: Can you describe the narrative of the film?

Shaffer :  
The main character, the 6-year-old girl Hushpuppy, is the narrator, so we see the world through her eyes. As such, the Bathtub, a Louisiana bayou community south of the safety of manmade levees, is both painfully realistic and lonely and extraordinarily fantastic and wondrous.

Hushpuppy begins her story in the 3rd person, “Once there was a hushpuppy.” Most simply, the use of a narrator and the conventions employed mark the story as a fairytale. In this way, the film audience is the audience for the tale. Fairytales both please us by the creation of a magical world beyond the world we know where anything is possible, as well as teach us lessons through the experiences of the protagonist. As a fairytale, we are asked to embrace the film’s surface but also its symbolic meanings.

Throughout the film, fairytale or mythical conventions are used. Many traditional fairytales portray a young girl or young woman who lives with her father after her mother’s death or disappearance. In addition, many fairytales center on a young person who goes on an impossible and life-changing journey complete with zany characters, evocative settings, and terrible creatures. For the most part, fairytales are seen today as stories for children, but at one time, they were tales for adults that expressed the concerns of a community. Certainly, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” as an adult fairytale, asks us to consider life in southern Louisiana post-Katrina in new ways.    

Q: What themes do you see coming through the narrative?

Shaffer :
The theme of the motherless child is the strongest for me. Hushpuppy’s circumstance seems to be metonymic of the entire community of the Bathtub. We see a motherless child as vulnerable. We pity her. Yet she is often resourceful. She has strengths we don’t often ascribe to her. She has strengths we can’t understand.

The Bathtub, being beyond the embrace of the levees, is like a motherless child, a child without protection.

The art direction of this film is incredible. For example, the living conditions of Hushpuppy are both realistic squalor and fantastic Swiss Family Robinson at the same time. The setting really captures the perspective of a child. 

LSU campus
Throughout the film, fairytale or mythical conventions are used. Many traditional fairytales portray a young girl or young woman who lives with her father after her mother's death or disappearance.

Q: What do you think the Aurochs, the main character’s imagined mythical creatures, represent?

Shaffer :
Monsters are never the real monsters in any tale like this. They represent obstacles one must overcome to proceed (or succeed) on one’s journey. Of course, more literally, they also represent the past, creatures that have been obliterated. As such, they also represent how Hushpuppy sees her future. Will she go the way of the Aurochs? The moment she meets them face to face at the end of the film is stunning. It’s a huge shift in her logic. She’s no longer afraid of oblivion.  

Q: Any other interpretations of the film?

Shaffer :
I love the way the film values community. Being from South Louisiana and also growing up in extended family, I appreciate the film’s attention to how much community can matter in the life of a child, or how much community matters, period.

Climate Change and Stronger Storms

“There is an urgent need for us to better understand the science behind all these changes that are occurring in our coastal systems, and use this science to make sound policy decisions to help protect our coast.”

Kam-biu Liu is the George William Barineau III Professor and Department Chair of the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences in the School of the Coast & Environment at LSU.  He is recognized as a pioneer and leader in paleotempestology, an emerging field that studies past hurricane activity by means of geological proxy techniques and historical documentary evidence. As a paleoclimatologist and paleoecologist, Liu’s broader research interests include the use of fossil pollen, lake sediments, and ice cores to reconstruct the global and regional patterns of climate and environmental changes on timescales of centuries to millennia. Liu’s research has been featured in numerous newspapers, magazines and TV programs in the U.S. and internationally, including The New York Times, Science, Fortune Magazine, The Economist, U.S. News and World Report, the Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

LSU campus
The art direction of this film is incredible. The setting really captures the perspective of a child.

Q: In “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the main character sees a world “falling apart” as melting ice caps and sea level rise threaten her coastal Louisiana island. What is the real science behind this story?

Liu :
Sea level rise is indeed a major threat confronting many coastal communities in the world, particularly in low-lying coastal areas like Louisiana.  The level of the sea—relative to that of the land—can rise due to a number of factors.  These factors can be broadly divided into two groups. 

The first group is that the land itself is subsiding relative to the sea (which remains unchanged).  Land subsidence is occurring naturally in coastal Louisiana, partly because the relatively soft sediment accumulating in the Mississippi River delta region over the past 7,000 years has been sinking under its own weight due to compaction. But these natural processes are exacerbated by human activities, especially groundwater and hydrocarbon extraction, which undermines the support of the ground from below.  The Mississippi River, now already less muddy than it was a century ago, is prevented from adding fluvial mud to the subsiding wetlands to raise the surface elevation in the delta region because of the levees that were built along it for flood protection. 

The second group of contributory factors—and a much more serious one globally—operates by adding more water to the ocean—a process known as eustatic sea level rise; and this one has a lot to do with climate change.  The volume of water expands as its temperature increases.  As the climate gets warmer, the volume of water in the global ocean increases, pushing the sea level a little bit higher. 

By far the most important player in global sea level rise is due to the melting of the glaciers.  During geological times the Earth’s sea level had gone through dramatic changes partly due to the expansion and contraction of glaciers as the world’s climate changed between glacial and interglacial modes.  Going back 21,000 years ago, when the Earth was in the peak of the last Ice Age, the global sea level was about 120 m (~400 feet) lower than today’s because much of the water in the ocean was locked up in the form of huge ice sheets on land.  During the next 14,000 years, the sea level rose as the ice was melting due to climate warming. 

Lora Hinton
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" depicts the many realities of a community on the edge, faced with drastic environmental changes and yet held together by a strong and rich culture.

Data from tide gauges and satellite altimetry have indicated that the rate of global sea level rise has increased to 1.5 mm per year during the past 150 years (1860-2009), and may have even accelerated to 2.8 mm per year during the past decade since 2003.  While there is still much uncertainty associated with these estimates and the physical mechanisms behind them, there is little doubt that global warming is going to lead to increased melting of the glaciers, which will further accelerate the rate of global sea level rise.  For the Gulf of Mexico, the eustatic sea level is predicted to rise by about 1 meter by 2100, with a range of 0.5 to 1.5 meters depending on different scenarios.  If we add on top of that a subsidence rate of just 10 mm per year – a moderate estimate for the deltaic plain of coastal Louisiana – there will be dire consequences for the coastal communities such as the one featured in the film, as well as for metropolitan areas like New Orleans.

Q: In the film, a big storm floods the main characters’ Gulf island, called “The Bathtub.” The flood also brings salt water that begins to kill fish and animals. Can you talk about the science behind this storm, storm surge and flooding impacts in coastal regions?

Liu :
Sea level rise is certainly a major threat faced by the coastal communities of Louisiana, but this threat is long-term and incremental.  A much greater imminent danger to Louisiana’s coastal populations is inundation due to freshwater flooding and storm surges caused by hurricanes.  A good example is the impacts of Hurricane Isaac, which made landfall in Louisiana in August 2012.  Isaac was only a category 1 hurricane according to the Saffir-Simpson intensity scale; hardly an intense hurricane by its wind speed.  But this slow-moving storm dumped more than 20 inches of rain in eastern Louisiana and adjacent Mississippi.  The torrential rain, coupled with the storm surge pushed up by easterly winds over Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas, caused tremendous flooding of the low-lying areas around these lakes and especially the Amite River-Lake Maurepas basin to the west.  The inundation caused significant mortality among the deer populations and other wildlife species. 

It is remarkable that this storm-induced flooding occurred not on the sea coast of Louisiana, but in areas many miles inland.  For barrier island communities like the imaginary Isle de Charles Doucet featured in the film – or real places like Grand Isle or Port Fourchon that sit on the frontline of Louisiana’s coastal zone – the biggest danger comes from the storm surge generated by a hurricane’s intense low pressure and strong onshore winds.

One thing is certain about the future trend of storm surges as a hazard to coastal communities.  That is, on a subsiding coast subject to a rising sea level, our society’s vulnerability to the devastating effects of storm surges will greatly increase. Historically, coastal Louisiana has suffered from the devastating impacts of storm surges.  In 1893, Cheniere Caminada, a barrier island community located just west of Grand Isle and probably not unlike the Isle de Charles Doucet community in the movie, was annihilated by the 16-foot-high storm surge caused by an intense land-falling hurricane, resulting in a death toll of 2,000 people. We have all seen the devastation caused by Katrina and Rita to coastal Louisiana, mostly as a result of the storm surges generated by these intense hurricanes.  Extreme events like these, and their disastrous impacts, will only get worse if the trend of global warming, sea level rise, and coastal land loss continues unabated.

LSU campus
Glen Pitre, director of "Belizaire the Cajun".

Q: What is salt water intrusion and why does it happen?

Liu :
The coast is a transitional zone between the land and the sea, or between a freshwater environment and a saltwater environment.  In a low-lying coast like Louisiana’s, this transition is not a sharp one, but consisting of a salinity gradient marked by a series of wetland zones ranging from saltmarshes and brackish marshes to freshwater marshes and swamps.  Different biological communities inhabit different types of coastal wetlands. 

As a result of the coastal subsidence and sea level rise processes that are ongoing and even accelerating along coastal Louisiana now, the coastline has been retreating, thereby allowing saltwater to intrude more frequently and more deeply into fresh marshes and swamps.  This is a long-term process that may occur imperceptibly, but once the salinity in the freshwater ecosystems has increased up to a point beyond which some plants and animals cannot tolerate, massive die-off may result and the ecosystem may not recover.  On top of this, very high storm surges generated by intense hurricanes such as Katrina and Rita can bring saltwater far inland into freshwater ecosystems that are rarely affected by – and therefore least tolerant of – high salinity. 

Human activities can make things worse.  The Louisiana coastal zone is crisscrossed by numerous canals and pipelines constructed to serve the needs of the oil and gas industry.  These structures dug across the coastal wetlands can serve as conduits that allow saltwater to intrude deeply into freshwater habitats, leading to rapid ecosystem degradation.  Roads and levees also disrupt the hydrology of coastal ecosystems, allowing saltwater from storm surges to be impounded in freshwater wetlands for a long time without draining back to the sea quickly, therefore permanently increasing the salinity in these habitats.  Ecosystem degradation in the wetlands causes the land to subside even faster, as the dying plant communities slow down the rate of peat formation and sediment accretion, thereby allowing even more saltwater intrusion. 

In southern Louisiana a lot of the coastal wetlands that were occupied by healthy marshes a few decades ago are now covered by open waters.  All of these processes are contributing to the alarming problem of land loss, resulting in the bleak scenario of landscape degradation that is portrayed in the film.

Q: Can you talk about the science of hurricanes, in relation to the big storm depicted in the movie? Could climate change be creating more intense storms?

Liu :
This question is still being hotly debated among climate scientists. With regard to storm intensity, the science is clear.  Global warming will lead to an increase in the surface temperature of the ocean, and a warmer ocean will lead to stronger hurricanes.  A recent study (Bender et al., 2010, Science) based on sophisticated computer modeling predicts that while the total number of Atlantic tropical cyclones will decrease in the 21st century, the frequency of the most intense hurricanes (category 4 and 5) will be doubled by 2100, and these stronger storms will bring greater amounts of rainfall around the storm center. 

Modeling results paint a very alarming picture for the future of coastal Louisiana.  Imagine a future in which the strong storms will become even stronger, and landfalls by the likes of Katrina and Rita will become more frequent.  Meanwhile, our coast is sinking, the sea level is rising, and saltwater continues to intrude into our coastal wetlands with or without hurricane storm surges.  There is an urgent need for us to better understand the science behind all these changes that are occurring in our coastal systems, and use this science to make sound policy decisions to help protect our coast.

Building Resilience

“For Louisiana, there would be more than 1.2 million people affected by three meters of sea level rise – if they did not move by that time – or 28 percent of the state’s population.”

Nina Lam is a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences in the School of the Coast & Environment at LSU.  She has served previously as chair of the department (2007-2010) and program director of the Geography and Spatial Sciences Program at the National Science Foundation (1999-2001). Lam’s research interests include environmental health and disaster and resilience. She has received external funding to work on modeling business return in New Orleans after Katrina, community resilience assessment in the Gulf of Mexico region and coastal vulnerability modeling using a coupled natural-human system approach. Lam has received major research awards from LSU, including the Distinguished Faculty Award in 2006, LSU Rainmaker Award in 2008, Distinguished Research Master Award in 2010, and LSU School of the Coast & Environment Outstanding Faculty Research Award in 2011.

Q: The main character of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” lives on an island off the coast called Isle de Charles Doucet. Can you talk about the parallels of this island and the levee wall that cuts them off from the rest of the world?

There are many islands in coastal Louisiana that can only be accessed by boats, and hence they seem to be an area cut off from the rest of the world. You can see houses scattered here and there in the waterways and bayous in coastal Louisiana. I would say that the life in coastal Louisiana as depicted in the movie is real, though one would think that the movie has a certain degree of exaggeration as most movies do. In this case, depicting extreme poverty. 

Q: Can you talk about the real Isle de Jean Charles? Is it really slowly disappearing, and why?

Yes, the general area surrounding the real Isle de Jean Charles is slowly disappearing. If you see the map of southern coastal Louisiana, there has been a significant land loss problem. This is very well documented. The main reasons for the land loss problem have also been well documented. These include:

  1. Lack of continuing sediment supply from the Mississippi River, due mainly to the elaborated levees and dam system upstream designed to control the flooding of densely populated areas such as New Orleans and Baton Rouge;
  2. Land subsidence;
  3. A dense pipeline and canal system for oil and gas, cargo, and other industrial activities, which further exacerbates the salt water intrusion and the breaking up of the marsh land;
  4. Frequent hurricane activities and associated storm surge, generating a complex ecological response that also accelerate the land loss problem.

With the threat of global warming and sea-level rise, the land loss problem is expected to be even more severe. We conducted an analysis and published an article on this topic in 2009. In our analysis, we investigated how and where a 3-meter sea level rise would impact Louisiana. In fact, our analysis included the entire coast of conterminous United States, which indicated the potential flooding of Manhattan and the Potomac River in the center of Washington, DC. We have produced a number of maps and estimates of affected population. For Louisiana, there would be more than 1.2 million people affected by three meters of sea level rise – if they did not move by that time – or 28 percent of the state’s population.

Q: Are there really coastal Louisiana residents who live “on the wrong side of the levees”? What are the consequences for them of hurricanes and flooding?

Yes. The site and location of where you live really matters. To control the flooding problem of the Mississippi River, there are spillways and dams. When the river reaches a certain flood stage, it threatens the populated areas downstream, requiring spillways to be opened to let the water out before it threatens to breach or overtop the levee. So if you live in the area that is in the pathway of the spillway water, your house and the land would be flooded. For example, the Morganza spillway was built to relieve the floodwater from the Mississippi River to the Atchafalaya River basin and the swamp. The land in the floodway would be affected if the spillway was opened.

A couple years ago, we had a serious threat of flooding from the Mississippi River. If the Morganza spillway was opened, houses in the pathway, “the wrong size of the levee”, would need to be evacuated. The event gathered intense media coverage.

This is a classic dilemma in development strategies: how do you choose where to flood, to sacrifice rural areas with fewer people in order to save highly populated urban areas?  People living in the floodway had already been told, before they settled there, that their land would be subject to flooding in the event that the spillway was opened. People still chose to live there, because of cheaper land and a number of other economic reasons. To me, this fact is significant on two levels: the first is the need for a clear regulation and ordinance to spell out the potential danger of the flooding, so that the responsibility between residents, insurance industry and governments is clearly defined; the second is that living in a flooded zone is sometimes not a matter of choice, but rather a matter of earning a living. In this movie, we have seen that the people living in the highly vulnerable area still choose to live there, precisely because they know how to earn a living there. They do not know if there are better economic alternatives available to them at other places.

Relocating communities to safer places is always a better solution. However, relocation is not just relocation: it must come with having some economic opportunities available at the new location.

Q: Any other interpretations of the film?

What strikes me about the film is the conflict and distrust between people and government and the unwillingness to evacuate, which one can translate to the unwillingness to relocate to a new place to live. People might think that it is important for them to remain for the sake of maintaining the culture and community history. I take a different view. I think that if one can explain and open up the opportunities for making a living in the new place, people would be willing to relocate, especially to a new place nearby and close to relatives. Frankly, who would not want a safe and dry home to live in? As I mentioned before, moving the entire community would be the best option, but economics really, really matter.

Multiple readings are possible: Hushpuppy may be narrating past events, which creates an optimistic reading (the little girl survived to tell her tale against terrible odds), or Hushpuppy may be narrating for herself as she is experiencing the events (she sees herself and her situation outside of herself as a protective strategy). Of course, isolation also tends to contribute to talking to oneself, so that’s another reading.

We have seen in the past few years that there is a gradual migration from coastal Louisiana to higher grounds. And this includes the relocation of an entire Indian tribe from the real Isle de Jean Charles to higher ground. Also, over the past ten years, the Vietnamese population in New Orleans East has shifted toward Jefferson and St. Tammany Parishes, away from Orleans and Plaquemines. From 2000 to 2010, the number of Vietnamese in Jefferson Parish grew by 1,687 and in St. Tammany by 511. We need to build community resilience in the higher grounds. Frankly, resources are limited, so we should try to come up with a coastal restoration plan that is sustainable.


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