Back in January, a certain low-budget fantasy film turned heads at its premiere during the Sundance Film Festival. Beasts of the Southern Wild, the debut work from director Benh Zeitlin, earned buzz for its lush cinematography, sweeping score and, most notably, lead actor Quvenzhané Wallis, who was six years old at the time of filming.
The story takes place in the fictional southern Louisiana town of Bathtub, a scrappy, swampy hamlet where residents often eat meals while reclining on mounds of crayfish and live in elevated houses in the case of a flood. From the film’s get-go, the people of Bathtub know a severe storm is on its way, one that could wreak devastation on their tight-knit, diverse enclave. Some flee to safety to “the other side of the levee” — a remote place spoken about as if it were foreign and hostile — while others choose stick the torrents out.
After the disaster hits, however, rescue squads sent by the society from behind the levee round up Bathtub’s survivors, corralling them in a squalid ad-hoc rescue facility and treating them like human cattle. (Yes, you could call Beasts a Hurricane Katrina parable.) All the while, Wallis and her ailing father, played by New Orleans baker and nonprofessional actor Dwight Henry, do what they can to survive with dignity.
The real-life location of Bathtub can be found on the Isle de Jean Charles, a sinking island about 80 miles southwest of New Orleans. Back in 2009, photojournalist Andy Levin — who had already been snapping pictures of Jean Charles for a year and a half — documented the one-two punch of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which hit that summer and destroyed many of the island’s 60 homes. The photos ran in the old print edition of Next American City, along with an essay by NAC Executive Editor Ariella Cohen.
Below, we republished Levin’s photos in a slideshow.
Gallery: Isle de Jean Charles, 2009
All photos by Andy Levin