When Beasts of the Southern Wild by the US director Benh Zeitlin was released in 2012, it was praised for its almost disorienting originality – a fully realised feature debut from a filmmaking wunderkind. But artistic success is, of course, rarely so sudden, tidy or meteoric. Before Beasts, there was Glory at Sea! (2008), a short directed by Zeitlin with a different plot, but sharing the same Louisiana Bayou-soaked magical realism, and similarly narrated from the perspective of a naive-yet-precocious young girl. And, like Beasts, it’s a film to which it’s tempting, but perhaps inaccurate, to pin the ‘auteur’ label, as both projects were grand collaborations with the Court 13 Arts collective that Zeitlin founded.
Viewed some 13 years later, Glory at Sea! becomes more than just a slice of contemporary indie-film history for the arthouse crowd. Its expressionistic atmosphere is almost instantly captivating, dropping audiences into the underwater wreckage of a great storm, where the dead float in a seeming state of purgatory. Above water, after a survivor washes up on shore, locals construct a ramshackle boat in hopes of reuniting with loved ones swallowed up by the ocean. There’s a deep poignance to the proceedings, reinforced by the proximity – in setting and in time – to Hurricane Katrina. Indeed, the cast was largely drawn from local and little-known actors still living in Louisiana in the wake of the storm.
That’s not to say that it’s a film consumed by suffering – there’s a sweetness and hope in it, too. It’s in the music, carried by a gorgeous recurring string theme, and punctuated by a brass band playing through the town’s ruins, conjuring the revelrous, triumphant spirit of New Orleans. It’s also in the narrative, which summons the prospect of perseverance through the storm. And it’s in the project itself, an audacious – and, yes, deeply original – work of art, built through community.
Written by Adam D’Arpino
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Producers: Dan Javney, Park Parekh, Josh Penn
Website: Court 13 Arts