Little Chenier's second story begins in its final frames. The award-winning independent film, shot in the heart of Cajun country and opening Friday in New Orleans, closes with two images of a rural back road that might as well be negatives of one another. In the first, a production clip tagged 'August 2005," a young woman walks beneath the verdant foliage canopy of a Louisiana live oak. The second, a photo taken in early October, shows the same scene days after being ravaged by Hurricane Rita: the earth scorched a barren sepia, the leafless trees a gnarled mess. For first-time feature filmmaker Bethany Ashton Wolf and her brother, co-writer Jace Johnson, the purpose of the project shifted with the wind. The meditative, emotionally charged drama follows two beleaguered siblings set in a small Cameron Parish fishing community, but the film crews left Little Chenier in late August 2005, beating Katrina's landfall by less than a week. More than a movie, their film is a last look at a now-devastated region.
'We went in with a cinematic responsibility to a dying culture," Wolf says. 'Cajuns haven't been properly represented in cinema. Either they're not represented, or they're misrepresented or made fun of. We didn't know while we were shooting that we were making history, a piece of living history. ... It went from a cinematic responsibility to a moral obligation to these people."
'They're fighters," Johnson says of the many area residents who assisted with production and subsequently were left homeless by Rita. 'As with [New Orleans residents], a lot of them evacuated to Houston and never came back. ... They have been neglected. They have no media spotlight on them at all " people don't even know they exist. We're hoping this film will help with that."
Early feedback has been very positive. Little Chenier is widely being hailed as a definitive work, the finest film representation of slow, simple life in south Louisiana since 1986's Belizaire the Cajun. The picture has been championed on the festival circuit, where it has received awards for acting (recognizing Frederick Koehler's uncanny portrayal of the mentally handicapped Pemon Dupuis), for direction and, at the Phoenix Film Festival, for Best Picture of 2007.
'Before we wrote it," Wolf says, 'we wondered, "How do we educate people about Cajun culture without hitting them over the head with it?' We wanted to create a beautiful fictional story, yet have the culture permeate through it."
'Bethany and I, both being from [Lake Charles, La.], we didn't want to be embarrassed by it," Johnson adds. 'You watch Louisiana films and it's like, "That's not how you eat a crawfish.' [The characters] are fishermen, so I wanted them to be able to cast an open-face reel, not some Snoopy pole."
The cast, which includes veteran actors " but nonLouisianans " Johnathon Schaech (That Thing You Do!), Clifton Collins Jr. (Capote) and Koehler (Domino), had its hands full while acclimating. Familiar regional challenges like triple-digit temperatures, Jurassic mosquitoes, storm evacuations and the task of filming half the picture on water hindered the six-week summertime shoot. But at times, says Koehler, a native of New York, the boot-camp conditions also helped.
'The unseen character is the bayou," he says. 'When it's 110 degrees and 99 percent humidity, you can't ignore it for long. And when it's that present in the script, it really does help. If we were out on the boat acting like it was hot and it was really 72 degrees, it would've been much harder."
The accents provided a different kind of challenge. Determined to avoid another Dennis Quaid-in-The Big Easy debacle, Wolf and Johnson hired Bernelle Ezelle, their high school linguistics teacher, to tutor the actors in the curled colloquialisms of Cajun French.
'We had a lot of locals there, and if Bernelle wasn't around, it was easy just to hang out with them and talk and pick it up," Collins says. 'That was fun, to be a part of their community, a part of their culture."
Wolf, whose family founded a charity called Rita Remembered to assist those who lost their homes to the storm, hopes Little Chenier has the same effect on larger audiences. 'That's the most beautiful thing across the country " or internationally, sitting in a London theater " with that end shot. You can say it all you want, but when you actually see it, it speaks volumes."
- Bethany Wolf, Fred Koehler and Johnathon Schaech on the set of Little Chenier