Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Wisdom of a Child: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Empowerment is a central focus of American society.  It is the heart of our discussion about freedom.  We want to be free to be who we are, to do what we want to do (so long as we hurt no one else),  and one of the main keys to this in American society is the power to tell people stopping us from wanting to do our own thing, “Leave us alone!”  This is a power that people in the past didn’t have.  We don’t have to go far back in history to find large masses of people being arrested, imprisoned, tortured and killed because they were living their lives the way they wanted to live them.  Most Americans are offended by the idea of persecuting or prosecuting people because they are black, gay, atheist, or a child.  The American answer to all these cases is to empower the people to refute persecution with law.

However, there are still masses of people who are not given such empowerment.  One type of community that is still vulnerable to persecution is presented in Beasts of the Southern Wild.  The residents of The Bathtub, an island on the “wrong” side of a levy, are a truly wild people.  They make their own homes, determine their own work, create their own lifestyles, without regard to law or “normal” culture.  The way they raise their children, what they teach in schools, how they associate with one another is completely without regard to societal norms, and that’s the way they like it.  The scariest thing for them is to be institutionalized, to be forced to live according to someone else’s rules.  There are pockets of this feral community throughout the United States: you can find them in homeless camps and in outback rural areas.   And they frighten the majority of mainstream cultures.  Feral communities are depicted as dangerous in such films as Deliverance, The Wicker Man and in recent films like Winter’s Bone.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, however, takes a very different view of feral communities.  The Bathtub is a joyful, if not especially bright, community, full of innovation and support and love.  Even though many of them barely survive, they are still vibrant.   Although floods come to devastate their community, this isn’t a story of desperation and rescue.  In fact, salvation from the outside is the enemy.  While most of us would be on our roofs, waving to the helicopters, they crawl in drying hovels, hoping the helicopters would go away.  Because for the feral community, empowerment is separation from government, separation from laws and the police and from anyone who wants to “save” them.  Even when their land becomes unlivable.

This film is not about the community, as fascinating as I find it.  It is a movie about the empowerment of one person—Hushpuppy a very young girl tossed to and fro by circumstances.  In the mainstream community, we see such a child as necessary to be protected, because she is so frail, so vulnerable.   But is she really?  Does she have resources that we know nothing about?  Absolutely. 

Where the Wild Things Are, Tideland, Spirited Away and Pan’s Labyrinth are three films on my top 100 movies of all time.  The Spirit of the Beehive and the Iranian film The Mirror also are powerful films. And they all deal with a child’s resilience in the face of tremendous crises.  The Mirror is the most simple one, displaying a child lost in the midst of a huge city, but using her own independence and determination to make it home.  Pan’s Labyrinth and Beehive has a child in the midst of fascist oppression, undermining it through powerful determination.   Spirited Away has a child in a spirit world with rules she doesn’t really understand but her hard work and innate talents shine in the midst of crisis.  Tideland is perhaps the hardest of these films to watch, with a young girl becoming orphaned in a dangerous wilderness.  Where the Wild Things are has a child facing down the toughest opponent of all: his own lack of control and anger.

A child, along with the developmentally disabled and mentally ill, is the one who has the least ability to be empowered.   Yet all of these films give the main tools for empowerment for the most helpless and vulnerable.  It is not law, for law requires some legal standing and experience.  It is not governmental authority, because adults do not really understand the perspective and need of the child (or mentally ill).  How can a hopeless, helpless child be empowered?

For a change, movies give us a key.  All of these films, including Beasts of the Southern Wild, give us the key: determination and imagination. 

It is the imaginative who are empowered, because even if they cannot understand the complexities and massive scale of the trouble they are in, they can use their imagination to grasp it in a way they can grasp.  The solutions may be beyond their ability to intellectually fine, but they can use their imagination to find a path that will lead to survival.  As adults, we might dismiss imagination as being something less than reality.  But imagination can stand in place of reality, giving us empowerment in situations that we cannot live with otherwise.  This is the wisdom of the child.

It is the determined who are empowered, even if they have no other sword to wield.  Only the determined will see through their survival and safety to the end.  The determined can not only deliver themselves, but others as well.   The determined remains on the path to their goal, no matter what obstacles, no matter how wayward the path, no matter any naysayer.  Only the determined have the faith necessary to reach safety.  This is the wisdom of the child.

Although children, and others in powerless situations, may lack in traditional intelligence or resources that normally means survival, if they (or we) have that imaginative determination we can and will survive.  Perhaps these are qualities we should encourage.  For these are the true leaders of our society.


  1. "Imagination can stand in place of reality, giving us empowerment in situations that we cannot live with otherwise. This is the wisdom of the child."

    You've hit the nail on the head here. My imagination definitely helped me survive some scary stuff as a child. Now, of course, I want to connect this back to the Bible... Perhaps this is part of the whole "entering the Kingdom of God as a child" thing? It takes imagination to live in an invisible Kingdom every day. And sometimes it takes realizing how powerless you really are to spur that act of imagination.

    1. I know that God loves holy imagination-- it is throughout the Bible. And that imagination is truly power for the powerless, and since God is focused on the powerless, he empowers imagination, especially hope for the future. Truly this is part of being a child.

  2. I have never seen classic southern movies and couple of my friends told me that those are awesome, a must watch. So can anyone share some latest and good movie links with me?