Beast It: A Film for Climate Science

Tales of a little wonder of a film for climate science are popping up everywhere, from today's feature story at Louisiana State University, to a  recent Guardian blog post, to a Smithsonian story on the film's stunning visual art.

"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

The film fantastically depicts the issue of looming and potentially irreversible environmental changes in Southern Louisiana through the eyes of a young heroine, "Hushpuppy," on her journey to fend off melting ice caps, prehistoric monsters and her fathers' imminent death. “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 is not the only artist to take inspiration from the Gulf Coast's rapidly changing landscapes. Julie Dermansky, an Affiliate Scholar at The Center for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution, is an internationally-known photographer currently based in New Orleans. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, US News, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other media outlets. Dermansky's photographs from the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico have received much acclaim.

After seeing a Slate feature of Dermansky's photographs from Louisiana's Terrebone Parish, the rapidly eroding landscape that inspired Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild," I contacted her to ask her a few questions about her work and experiences in Louisiana's disappearing coastal communities.

Q: Can you tell me more about your experience taking pictures of coastal Louisiana? How long have you been doing this? Have you documented environmental changes?

Dermansky: I was inspired to photograph the area around Pointe-aux-Chenes and Isle de Jean Charles in part because of the imminent demise of these landscapes. The area’s sublime beauty and unique culture are being threatened by coastal erosion. After covering the BP oil spill, I started a series about places that weren't destroyed by the BP oil spill, but could have been. Pointe-aux-Chenes and Isle de Jean Charles were in the danger zone of the spill in the Gulf.

My interest in Natural History led me to the area in the first place. I have been photographing Tulane University's natural history collection since I moved to New Orleans in 2009, which led me to gain an understanding of coastal erosion in order to understand Louisiana's natural history. A trip to the area known as the 'Bathtub' is the perfect starting point for such an education.

The issue in coastal Louisiana is multi-faceted, caused by natural and manmade factors. The natural factors are climate change and the rising waters around the world. Manmade factors include the channels cut through the marsh by the oil and gas industry, as well as the levee system along the Mississippi river.

I started shooting Tulane University’s Natural History Collection in 2007, and started shooting the environment in 2008. I didn’t really focus on making a series until after the BP oil spill. I took to heart what could have been lost had the well not been capped. I have documented environmental changes on some of the barrier islands - like Cat Island in Barataria Bay. The island has lost so much land that I wonder whether Pelicans and other birds will nest there at all this year.

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

Dermansky: The short answer is yes. Coastal erosion is eating away the island. And since the island falls outside of the Master Plan of coastal restoration, nothing, at least that I know about, will stop it.

I wrote an article about this that goes into detail.

Q: How are the problems of coastal erosion, lack of soil renewal, oil company and government canals, and a rising sea level affecting the island and the rest of the Gulf Coast?

Dermansky: All of the things you are asking about contribute to coastal erosion. Since nothing is being done to change any of them, it seems that the island is doomed.

Q:  Are there really coastal Louisiana residents who live “on the wrong side of the levees”?

Dermansky: Yes there are. People living outside areas protected by levees are in grave danger, and usually under evacuation orders, if a big storm surge comes.

Q: What is your experience taking pictures of storm and flooding damage in this area?

Dermansky: I shot after Hurricane Isaac. The water took its time going down. It was heart-breaking to see all the livestock drowned along the roads. Braithwaite is pretty much a ghost town now. Shooting in the days after the storm was spooky out there, due to the danger of chemical exposure.  No one knew exactly what was in the water.

Q: Do you have stories about how locals talk about the environmental changes they see?

Dermansky: The people in Southern Louisiana that I have met all seem to have a close relationship to the land. They are acutely aware of their changing environment.

Many feel helpless - their voices muffled under the interest of oil and gas companies. These companies have expedited the area's demise with the canals that they cut through the marsh. The Native Americans living in Louisiana's Terrebonne Parish feel abandoned by the federal government and BP, who didn't do much to help them out despite the damage done to the seafood industry in the area. Some are fighting to keep their culture and land viable against all odds.