Zeitlin: Navigating unconventional narratives

10 Directors to Watch 2012: Benh Zeitlin

Age: 29
Homebase: New Orleans
Inspired by: Emir Kusturica’s “Underground” (“It seems like this is a family effort.”), Les Blank’s “Dry Wood.”
Reps: Attorney: Linda Lichter (Lichter, Grossman, Nichols, Adler & Feldman)

Captain Ahab not only figures directly as a crazed puppet in Benh Zeitlin’s surreal 8-minute stop-motion debut, “Egg,” but also informs the unnamed protagonist from the director’s dream project, a movie detailing a foolish mission by a mad mariner lensed entirely at sea. “I somehow connect to that incredibly misguided ship captain,” muses the young director.

Ahab’s sense of perilous questing defines every aspect of Zeitlin’s growing oeuvre. Although he’s moved on from the logistical audacity of his animated debut, the filmmaker’s work remains constantly challenging, as he crafts mythical landscapes which remain firmly grounded in real-world problems. His first full-length feature, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which will debut in competition at Sundance, augments its live-action movie-making with puppet-based effects in telling the story of a 6-year-old girl who weathers a series of cataclysmic events in a post-apocalyptic town in the American south.

And yet, for all its fanciful effects, the film is intimately concerned with current issues facing the Gulf Coast, specifically soil erosion. The New Orleans-based Zeitlin, who previously grappled with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in his award-winning 2008 short “Glory at Sea,” is always attuned to the communities he interacts with in crafting his films.

“I’ll go live somewhere and kind of immerse myself in it and grab on to details,” says Zeitlin, who prefers to work in close cahoots with his ever-growing film collective, Court 13. Zeitlin describes the group’s unique method as “setting up a chaotic world and then setting up a group of people that have the power to go in and react to the chaos.”

That approach reflects the formative influence of Emir Kusturica’s 1995 pic “Underground,” a film whose unconventional collaborative methods helped inspire Zeitlin to become a director. “The reason I ended up being drawn to film was that it allows you to create your own universe with its own set of rules and your own code of behavior,” explains Zeitlin, who developed “Beasts” through the Sundance Lab. By working on his terms, all the while resisting overtures from agents and the industry, Court 13’s young captain has been able to do just that.

10 Directors to Watch
Zal Batmanglij |

Valerie Donzelli | Gareth Evans | Philippe Falardeau | Mike ‘Mouse’ McCoy & Scott Waugh | Gerardo Naranjo | Matt Piedmont | Michael R. Roskam | Lynn Shelton | Benh Zeitlin