Staving off the Beasts: Humans and the Environment

Kristin Matthews introduced the film Beasts of the Southern Wild for the BYU International Cinema, discussing themes of environmental responsibility and the human role in ecology.

PROVO, Utah (Feb. 14, 2017)—Shooting bullets at an incoming hurricane would probably cause no effect at all, but in the film Beasts of the Southern Wild Wink, an African American character, does it anyway. Maybe he wants to show his five-year-old daughter Hushpuppy that she is safe no matter what, or maybe he does it to reassure himself that he truly is not afraid of any storm. “It’s a ridiculous moment,” explained Kristin Matthews, introducing the film for the BYU International Cinema. “Like a shotgun blast can do something to hold back this storm or stop it. . . . To quote a friend, ‘nature always wins,’ and it kind of does, right?”

Matthews, a professor of English at BYU, explained that this film challenges several of the assumptions humans make about their relationship with nature. “We’d like to think that we are going to subdue and dominate earth,” said Matthews. “[This film] challenges the idea that humans can control nature and manipulate it without consequence.”

The protagonist of Beasts of the Southern Wild is 5-year-old Hushpuppy who lives in a Louisiana bayou nicknamed “the Bathtub.” Her community is damaged by a huge, human-caused storm, which in addition to destroying buildings also contaminates the fresh water supply. The town is subjected to an evacuation by authorities to an emergency shelter. Meanwhile, the melting ice caps release prehistoric animals, Aurochs, which make a later appearance.

The film, Matthews told the audience, is sensual, but not in an erotic sense. Rather it combats over conceptualization by engaging the viewer through sounds, silence, dramatic lighting, and the almost real smells and tastes from the cooking and eating featured in the film. “Senses connect us in a different way,” said Matthews. “When we conceptualize, we can think about it and then go on with our daily lives, but if we experience something viscerally it is harder to dismiss it or take it lightly or to move on.”

“[The film] is about a search for love, a search for connection,” said Matthews. “It’s a connection related to ecology. Ecology is the study of how all the different organisms and systems are connected together.” Beats of the Southern Wild explores how humans can have an incredible impact on their environment to the point of completely destroying it. Matthews noted that the film is a call to take responsibility for the effect that we as humans have on our environment.

There is another pervading assumption that humans can destroy the environment because, at the rate technology is advancing, we will somehow create something that will save the earth and reverse the damage we have done. This belief, however, does not solve the problems caused by environmental mismanagement now. An important point of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Matthews noted, is that it illustrates the unequal distribution of environmental benefits to some, with the overexposure to environmental hazards to other groups, also known as environmental racism.

“Rob Nixon wrote a book entitled Slow Violence in the Environmentalism of the Poor. These changes in our environment disproportionately affect the poor and people of color,” said Matthews. She explained that these are the citizens least likely to have access to a political ear and often receive harsher treatment and more skepticism from the authorities. What Beasts of the Southern Wild does is invite others to take personal responsibility. Matthews continued, “We’ve got to look out for those who are smaller, do not have as much power. To use Christian terms, we’ve got to look out for the ‘least of these’ because then, ideally, we can stave off the beasts that are on our doorstep.”

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the International Cinema for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.