Recently, a school near my flat has started its own pop-up cinema, which is run by a mixture of teachers, volunteers and sixth-form students. I heard about it for the first time a month or so ago, and a recent screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild presented me with my first chance to attend. In terms of the film choice, it couldn’t be more apt.
London does have some very unusual cinema experiences to offer, many of which are relatively recent additions that have helped to break the homogeneity of the multiplex. There are – of course – the occasional outdoor screenings in the summer like you get in lots of towns and most cities, even though the chances are it will probably rain and rain and rain and rain, ensuring that by the end the crowd will look like a bunch of battle scene extras from Braveheart. There are also a few bars here and there that show films (though far too many that show films as an atmospheric backdrop, without the sound); either way it’s not always a great location to take in a film because of the background noise. Then there’s the hugely successful Secret Cinema, a pop-up cinema ‘experience’ set in a variety of stunning and unusual venues with costumes and props and all sorts of other ephemera relevant to the film they are showing. (I’ve always thought it a shame that the UK doesn’t have a long tradition of outdoor cinema, such as drive-ins in the US; nothing developed on a similar scale in the 1950s, and I don’t buy the idea that the weather has anything to do with it (seeing as the US experiences more extreme conditions). Maybe it’s due to the relative lack of space.)
The multiplexes still have a grip on much of the city (and all of the retail parks), though some traditional independent cinemas thrive. Naturally some of these are arthouse cinemas, where anyone can escape from the rain for a couple of hours, drink a whisky or three and find out what the rain looks like in foreign countries. Throw a few huge institutions like the BFI into the mix, and an IMAX, and you’d be right in thinking there is plenty of choice for the average cinemagoer.
With all those options you might feel it’s a little churlish for me to complain at all, but the one issue I do have is that near to me (which is kind of heading-towards-the-sticks-but-still-just-about-London), my only choice until now locally has been a multiplex. That’s great most of the time, but slightly disappointing if I want to see a film like Beasts of the Southern Wild on the big screen, as there isn’t enough commercial appeal. So I’m really glad that a pop-up cinema, run by enthusiasts, has come to be. (This is the point where all those people reading who have to drive an hour to the nearest cinema, which is only a one-screener and lurches from one Jason Statham vehicle to the next, spit out their cornflakes in collective disgust. I accept any deserved anti-Londoner scorn, but please: LEAVE NOW! THERE WILL BE NO DISSENT HERE!)
It was a good experience overall and the feel of it being a local community event was a particular highlight. In fact I was feeling very community-minded on the way home as a result, though all of my goodwill was instantly destroyed by the sight of a 6ft-long fluorescent green penis spray-painted on the floor of my building’s car park. The pop-up sold locally-made snacks and drinks, and there was even a raffle. They produced extensive notes on the film as well as recommendations for further viewing, and to top it all they showed a nice short animated film before the main feature (they had been intending to show one of Beasts director Benh Zeitlin’s short films, but had to cancel due to technical difficulties). The school I watched the film in has had a new multi-million pound arts centre and therefore has its own cinema screen / projection equipment. It all makes me wonder why I bother with overpriced cinema chains at all, to be honest.
And the film? Well, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a fittingly lo-fi, DIY effort itself (at least compared to most films that get nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars). Lauded last year upon release and nominated for four shiny gongs in total, it tells the story of a child named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest ever nominee for Best Actress) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) as they struggle to survive in The Bathtub, a Louisiana bayou community. Wink, an angry, violent father that has shut out his daughter to the extent she lives on her own in a separate building, is slowly dying and refuses medical treatment. He also refuses to leave the bayou when a storm hits, riding it out with several other locals.
Water levels have risen with the storm, and the residents decide to blow a hole in the levee that protects New Orleans from the water. This returns the bayou water level to normal, but also brings with it unwelcome disaster relief teams and the authorities from the city. Meanwhile, Hushpuppy sets out to find her mother, working as a chef in a floating bar / brothel, all the while imagining a marauding band of pre-historic aurochs heading for her local community, wreaking havoc along the way. Interestingly, the boat is called ‘Elysian Fields’. According to The IMDB, ‘in Greek Mythology, “Elysium” or “Elysian Fields” was the name for the afterlife of the gods and blessed mortals. Greek mythology also contained a boatman (named Charon) who ferried souls from the world of the living to the world of the dead for a small fee’. Hushpuppy is picked up by a boatman and taken to the boat, implying that her mother is actually dead. The sequence has a hazy, dreamlike feel to it, which would support the theory.
Zeitlin’s film addresses the age-old theory of natural order, as Hushpuppy gradually begins to see how the natural world is linked together. She has had to grow up quickly, summoning a great deal of both strength and defiance in order to cope with her harsh surroundings, and has adopted some of her father’s characteristics in order to mask her age and physique. She is required by both her father and her environment to be bigger and tougher than she actually is, and neither Wink nor the environment have any forgiveness or compassion to spare as a result of the girl’s age. Wallis – with narrowing eyes and tensing body – plays the character facing up to this superbly; it is impossible not to be impressed by the quality of her performance and the age at which it has been delivered. Henry, a New Orleans baker with no previous acting experience, is also excellent as the embittered, weakening Wink.
Zeitlin shot on 16mm film, often positioning the handheld camera uncomfortably close to his actors, which places you right at the heart of the action. However, after a while, it begins to irritate when watching on the big screen. Cloying claustrophobia also occurs thanks to the use of interior locations that are small and cramped; you can almost feel the oppressive heat of the swamp inside them as characters sweat profusely and drain beers with relief. Excellent use is made of this strange, almost post-apocalyptic bayou terrain, creating an eerie, otherworldy feeling that occasionally recalls Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort.
I’m in no position to say whether it’s an accurate representation of life on the bayou or not, or a truthful insight into typical Creole and Cajun communities and culture, but it is an extremely unusual film, showing an area of the US that is largely unfamiliar to UK eyes. Despite the impressive ambition of the director and his crew (special effects were made by local film school volunteers) and the quality of the performances, it did drag at times due to the lack of plot. I can also see why both of the main characters have been criticised as being stereotypical: how many times have we seen a tough child that is wiser than their years and an elderly, mean, drunk father who – deep down – loves his offspring and simply wants the best for them? Still, it’s an impressive feat to have made a film of this quality with untried actors and a low budget, and it’s always encouraging to see an indie gatecrash the big Hollywood party in such a way.
Directed by: Benh Zeitlin
Written by: Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
Running Time: 93 Minutes