Cajuns in Film by Barry Jean Ancelet
- Issue of Violence
- Feature Films by Creoles and Cajuns
- Cajuns in Documentaries
- Spend It All
- The Good Times are Killing Me
- Cajun Crossroads
- J’ai été au bal
- Anything I Catch
- Dance for a Chicken
The essay below—Cajuns in Films-- is an abridged and slightly reorganized version of one published in the Atchafalaya Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring 2000) and reprinted in L’Acadie: Hier et Aujourd’hui/Acadie: Then and Now, ed. Warren Perrin, Mary Perrin and Phil Comeau. Opelousas (LA): Andrepont Publishing; Tracadie (NB): La Grande Marée, 2014. The author Barry Jean Ancelet is a leading scholar in Cajun studies. A native Louisiana French-speaking Cajun, Ancelet was born in Church Point and raised in Lafayette. He graduated from the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) with a BA in French in 1974. He received an MA in Folklore from Indiana University in 1977, and a doctorate in Études Créoles (anthropology and linguistics) from the Université de Provence (Aix-Marseille I) in 1984. He has been on the faculty at U.L. – Lafayette since 1977, first as Director of the Center for Acadian and Creole Folklore, and later as a Professor of Francophone Studies and Folklore in the Department of Modern Languages, which he chaired for a number of years. In 2005, he was named Willis Granger and Tom Debaillon / BORSF Professor of Francophone Studies. Upon his retirement in 2015, he was named Professor Emeritus of Francophone Studies.
Ancelet also served as director of the team of scholars that provided the basic research to the National Park Service for the development of the Jean Lafitte National Park’s three Acadian Culture Interpretive Centers. He is a Chevalier in France’s Palmes Académiques and in France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, a member of Quebec’s Ordre des Francophones d’Amérique, and a Fellow of the American Folklore Society, which also recently awarded him its Americo Paredes prize for his work in his own community. In 2009 he was named Humanist of the Year by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
Barry Ancelet has given numerous papers and published numerous articles and several books on various aspects of Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole cultures and languages, including One Generation at a Time: Biography of a Cajun and Creole Music Festival (Lafayette: UL Center for Louisiana Studies, 2007), Cajun and Creole Music Makers (formerly The Makers of Cajun Music ; revised edition, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999), Cajun Country (Jackson: U Press of Mississippi, 1991), and Cajun and Creole Folktales (New York: Garland Publishing, 1994), as well as two monographs, Capitaine, voyage ton flag: The Cajun Country Mardi Gras (Lafayette: UL Center for Louisiana Studies, 1989) and Cajun Music: Origins and Development (Lafayette: UL Center for Louisiana Studies, 1989). He is a member of the team, coordinated by Albert Valdman of Indiana University, that produced the Dictionary of Louisiana French as Spoken in Cajun, Creole and American Indian Communities (Jackson: U Press of Mississippi, 2009). With Carl Lindahl and Marcia Gaudet, he edited Second Line Rescue: Improvised Responses to Katrina and Rita (Jackson: U Press of Mississippi, 2013).
Barry Ancelet worked to expand the classroom through festivals (including Lafayette’s Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, which he directs), special concerts, records, museum exhibitions, documentary films, and television and radio programs. He served as a consultant and fieldworker for several documentary films, including Pat Mire’s Dance for a Chicken: The Cajun Mardi Gras and Anything I Catch: The Handfishing Story, Karen Snyder’s Cajun Crossroads, Alan Lomax’s Lache pas la patate: Cajun Country, André Gladu’s Zarico, Yannick Resch’s Les Cajuns, Chris Strachwitz’s J’ai été au bal: The Cajun and Zydeco Music of Louisiana, and Glen Pitre’s Good for What Ails You, as well as Côte Blanche’s Conteurs de la Louisiane radio storytelling series. He served as associate producer, along with Zachary Richard, and principal scholar, along with Carl Brasseaux, for Pat Mire’s Against the Tide: The Story of the Cajun People of Louisiana, a production of Louisiana Public Broadcasting and Louisiana’s Department of Cultural, Recreation and Tourism. The original form of his essay includes extensive assessments of individual commercial feature films and TV programs. This abridgment focuses more on his discussion of folklife documentary films.
Film is an expensive medium. In addition to attempting to make art, filmmakers must also look for ways to recoup their backers’ investments. The success of a movie depends in large part on its ability to attract the attention of viewers quickly and then hold it for an hour or two. Consequently, filmmakers have developed shorthand techniques to present key information about characters and contexts. Ideally these are based on archetypes. In reality, they are all too often based on stereotypes or caricatures, especially when the story involves the white Anglo-American hero who finds himself threatened by people from other backgrounds.
Ethnic groups have long appeared in documentary and feature films. African Americans, as faithful “darkies” or rebellious “niggers,” have shucked and jived or threatened the honor of white women since D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Native Americans, as drunken “Injuns” or wild “savages,” have attacked innocent wagon trains, scalping the men and abducting the women, since the earliest westerns. We all became fluent in the stereotypes of movie language. The Irish love to drink and fight, the French chase women and kill each other in honorable duels, the English keep a stiff upper lip and a lid on their emotions. Germans are cold and ruthless, Italians are excitable lovers and brutal gangsters, Mexicans are shiftless, fat and greasy, and Jews are angst-ridden penny-pinchers.
Eventually, the movie industry achieved some variety and subtlety in the presentation of ethnic groups. Films such as In the Heat of the Night, Little Big Man, and The Milagro Beanfield War challenged head-on our racial and cultural prejudices. Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen have given thought-provoking explorations of their own cultures.
For Americans, the South has provided a convenient setting for us vs. them confrontation in the movies as well as in the news. In his book The Celluloid South: Hollywood and the Southern Myth, Edward D.C. Campbell describes “the ‘Southern,’ – as much a Hollywood genre as the Western.” Indeed white Southerners, caricatured as eccentric, dueling, romantic planters in earlier films, have more recently become dim-witted, xenophobic, politically corrupt, racist bootleggers. And while movies such as In the Heat of the Night (1967) have challenged the old one-dimensional portrayals, others such as Deliverance have perpetuated the stereotypes. Jack Temple Kirby has traced the depiction of the South in stages: the Post-Reconstruction South (of D. W. Griffith), the Progressive South, the Embarrassing New South, the Grand Old South, the Visceral South, Dixie Mellow, the Devilish South, Dixie Redux and Demise, Re-redux and Reconciliation, with a caveat that developments continue (Kirby 1978).
Over the years, South Louisiana, described by anthropologist C. Paige Gutierrez as “south of the South,” has received similar treatment in feature films and documentaries. An exotic wilderness with clear cultural, ethnic and linguistic boundaries, the region has what it apparently takes to produce a Hollywood stereotype: the Cajuns are Catholics in the Bible Belt; many speak French in this English-speaking country; and in a land dominated by genteel, even Puritan standards, they are consistently described as drinking, dancing, brawling gamblers.
A few years ago, bigger-than-life chef Paul Prudhomme helped to launch a Cajun food fad. Immediately, the media supermarket offered a spicy stereotype instead of the real culture to the American public. Ersatz Cajun restaurants across the country began serving cayenne-laced everything. A national Pizza chain developed something called New Orleans-style Cajun pizza and a Milwaukee brewery introduced a cayenne-flavored beer “brewed in the time-honored Cajun tradition.” In New York’s LaGuardia Airport, I saw a fast snack outlet for a nut mix called Cajun Fire. Predictably, along with the hoopla came a wave of television and film crews.
But they were not the first. Cajun country was “discovered” by Hollywood early on in the development of the film industry. The first Tarzan movie was filmed near Morgan City and in the 1920s, Dolores Del Rio starred in a film adaptation of Longfellow’s “Evangeline.” Since then, a few dozen films have been set among Louisiana’s Cajuns, with results ranging from curious and haunting to bizarre and threatening.
The Cajuns made it onto Hollywood storyboards as a people among whom a hero can get into exotic trouble, thus providing an interesting alternative to the third world, with two fringe benefits: film crews don’t need passports or electrical current adapters; and this alternative will not yet get them in trouble. Unlike Blacks, Jews, American Indians and other cultural and ethnic groups, the Cajuns are concentrated in a relatively small region and they have not learned to complain as a group. Portrayals of the Cajuns invariably are built around violence, racism, xenophobia, alcoholism, ignorance, isolation and inbreeding. Traditional occupations such as trapping and fishing are almost exclusively used as the context for Cajun characters and thus set them in a rural, rustic, isolated, underdeveloped and extremely wet world.
The swamp is a hauntingly beautiful, photogenic landscape. Except for Casey’s Shadow (1977), about a Cajun horse trainer on the prairies, and The Big Easy (1987), about an Irish/Cajun cop in New Orleans, the Cajuns have been portrayed as swamp dwellers, in documentaries as well as features. In fact, if one were to believe the silver screen, one would think that most of South Louisiana is under water. Louisiana Story takes place in the swamp around Bayou Petit Anse. Thunder Bay is set in a Gulf Coast fishing village and offshore, Live and Let Die uses dry land as little more than a hurdle for James Bond in a speedboat. In Southern Comfort, errant National Guardsmen find themselves lost in a seemingly endless swamp. In No Mercy, Richard Gere and Kim Bassinger jump from a dock along the Mississippi River in Algiers into a nearby swamp (an interesting trick in the New Orleans metropolitan area). Bassinger incidentally finds ingenious ways to remain wet through most of the movie, partly because of her physique, and partly, one supposes, because of her Cajun background. And so on, and on….
During the 1970s, something happened to change Hollywood’s image of the Cajuns from idyllic, naïve swamp dwellers to hostile, cunning swamp stalkers. This may have had something to do with the concurrent shift that took place in the portrayal of Southerners (described by Kirby in Media-Made Dixie) from the romantic racists of Gone With the Wind to the violent racists of Hurry Sundown and Mandingo. The entire nation watched as the South publicly confronted its sins during the Civil Rights struggle, and the violence in the news was translated onto the silver screen. Several other factors may have contributed to the emerging image of the violent Cajuns. The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, created in 1968, launched a campaign to preserve Louisiana’s French language and culture after decades of neglect. This effort included a highly visible public relations campaign that called attention to the Cajuns as a cohesive and different ethnic group. The effort to preserve the group’s native French language went against the nationalistic current that had characterized the first part of this century, perhaps best expressed by former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt when he said such things as “There is room for but one language in this country and that is the English language,” and again “There is no such thing as a hyphenated American, no such thing as a French-American, or German-American or Spanish-American. Those who feel French or German or Spanish should go home.” Cajun music contributed significantly to the movement at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. By the 1970s, Cajun musicians were exporting their French waltzes and two-steps to enthusiastic crowds at college campuses and folk festivals throughout America. The Cajuns had become a highly visible minority celebrating its difference.
The Southern film genre frequently includes a considerable amount of graphic violence. The region undeniably is characterized by a certain amount, but films may misunderstand its nature. Studies by Southern scholars such as John Shelton Reed and Lynwood Montell have shown that violence in the South tends to be confrontational and interpersonal rather than random or gratuitous. People involved in violent situations usually know each other and understand why they are at odds. Assault and homicide are often considered to be appropriate resolutions to a problem among people who do not always feel it necessary to include institutional law enforcement or judicial agencies in their conflicts. However, it is easy to see that what seems to make perfect sense on a Saturday night between two people who share a similar social and cultural background can take on other, more evil meanings when presented out of context by misinformed filmmakers to uninitiated audiences in movie theaters across the country.
Recent studies seem to show that violence functions in a similar way south of the South (Ancelet, Brasseaux) and that filmmakers similarly misunderstand its nature there (Allain). At first, the Cajuns were generally presented à la Longfellow as a pastoral people living a rustic but gentle life in the Eden of Louisiana, an image National Geographic endorsed around the same time in articles about these anachronistic, isolated French-speaking swampers. In 1953, Thunder Bay portrayed the Cajuns as hostile but ineffective, backward, and even pitiful in their struggle against the arrival of the offshore oil industry. One of its scenes was a caricature of Cajun dueling traditions. Then things began to change. In Easy Rider (1969), it happens that the Southern rednecks who blow Captain America and his sidekick to smithereens for no real reason are Cajuns. In the television adaptation of Ernest Gaines’ Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, an old Cajun is paid to gun down Miss Jane’s adopted son. This is the beginning of a fairly consistent image of the Cajuns as violent, unpredictable, racist xenophobes. While it is true that the Cajuns developed racist attitudes, especially after the Civil War when they were expected to firmly occupy the second-to-last rung of the social ladder, it is also true that Cajuns and Black Creoles have lived as neighbors for hundreds of years and have shared musical, culinary and oral traditions. Such subtleties, however, are apparently difficult to preserve in a script.
All cultures are used and abused by Hollywood. Yet, some have more than one perspective available. We know that New York is not all slums and bums because we occasionally see Rockefeller Center and Park Avenue. There is, however, a remarkable consistency in the portrayal of the Cajuns in film. Even Robert Flaherty’s widely respected Louisiana Story presented the Cajuns as backward, isolated and superstitious swamp dwellers with few indications of contemporary civilization. And Flaherty’s black and white documentary is not exactly a regular in the video store trade or on the cable systems. The problem is that many people are impressed, to an important extent, by what they see on television and at the movies. It is true that some people know better than to believe everything they see on the screen. But for others, this may be the only source of information about such matters, the only time the subject comes up. What does the general public know about the American Indians, or people in Appalachia, or the Inuit. More people likely saw Witness than read a carefully documented description of the Amish.
Nevertheless, no amount of complaining will resolved this issue. In fact, complaints are invariably ignored by media executives who cannot be bothered with such trivial concerns as accuracy. When the Knight Rider episode aired, a few dozen people I know joined me in complaining to NBC. We all received the same form letter explaining that we had misunderstood the intent of the program. One way for Cajuns (and other ethnic groups) to repair Hollywood’s faulty image is to take the media into their own hands, to tell their own stories. This is of course difficult since television and film production is expensive. Cable and community-access television have opened new opportunities, but generally do not reach beyond the region. But South Louisiana has begun to produce its own interpreters. Some have learned to work with filmmakers; instead of simply giving an interview, they are positioning themselves as consultants. Some have begun to produce their own documentaries and films to define the people and the culture from the inside.
Feature Films by Creoles and Cajuns
The first step toward producing fictional films is writing the stories. Ernest Gaines, a Black Creole from Pointe Coupée parish, has had several of his novels adapted for television movies. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974), his saga of a Black family in Louisiana from slavery to the civil rights movement, preceded both Roots and Sounder. In Gaines’ story, it is a Cajun who is hired to kill Miss Jane’s son when he returns from the North to preach change. When Gaines was a child growing up near New Roads, Cajuns were the bogeymen who would come to get him if he did not behave. Gaines eventually came to be writer-in-residence at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, at Lafayette, in the heart of the Cajun country. It is little wonder that his later portrayal of the Cajuns had more depth. He had come to know many. In A Gathering of Old Men, there are good ones and bad ones, clever ones and foolish ones, racist ones, confused ones and some who resist the prejudices of the past: portrayal much closer to the complexity of real life.
As a novelist, Gaines has limited control over the story as it finally appears in the media. Cajun filmmaker Glen Pitre should be less frustrated in this regard, having chosen to work directly in the medium. Other frustrations such as limited financing make up the difference, however. Pitre’s first films were in Cajun French, with local actors. An avid student of oral history, he sought inspiration in the stories of his own family and region. Fièvre jaune is the story of a yellow fever epidemic and the effect that the ensuing quarantine has on a close-knit family and community. Huit piastres et demie le barril is a docu-drama about a shrimpers’ strike, ingeniously illustrating the oral history simultaneously from the two opposing points of view. Both stories are about confronting pressures that threaten to rip apart families and communities, reflecting the Cajuns’ long history of surviving upheavals with a strong sense of social cooperation and solidarity.
These low-budget exercises eventually attracted the attention of Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute which gave Pitre the contacts and the momentum he needed to tackle a real commercial film. With outside support and outside funding came outside pressures. The project’s title was eventually changed from the lyrical Acadian Waltz to Belizaire, the Cajun, apparently because supporters wanted to capitalize on the popularity of Cajun cooking and music. The story is set in mid-nineteenth-century Louisiana and features a traiteur (faith healer / folk medicine man) who is typical of the traditional trickster hero in Louisiana French oral tradition. In fact, the film owes much to folktale style and structure. Belizaire Breaux eventually breaks up a vigilante movement that is exiling “undesirable” Cajuns to Texas and wins the girl and a bit of booty in the end, in the tradition of the folk hero. The story is told from the inside. It is not about a visitor among the Cajuns. It is not so much about the Cajuns. It is rather set among the Cajuns and consequently includes rich ones and poor ones, heroes, rascals and villains. And like its predecessors, it is fundamentally about the preservation of community.
As a historical drama, however, Belizaire avoids the contemporary image problem. The story about being Cajun in today’s world had not been filmed until recently when Patrick Mire took on the challenge in Dirty Rice. Based on his own original screenplay, the film deals with the return of a young Cajun man to his family rice farm after learning about the wide world. There he faces the kinds of decisions that are the stuff of real-life dilemmas for many young Cajuns today who have to negotiate a place for themselves between the pressures of the past and those of the future. And again, it is a story about the preservation of the community and of social and culture values.
The image of the Cajuns in film is obviously faulty. Three factors could help rectify this image problem. One involves developing an informed public in South Louisiana. Sometimes in
our haste to entertain visitors, we create a poor long-term impression, representing ourselves as carefree party animals interested in little more than “laisser le bon temps rouler.” Another involves telling our own stories from the inside. We have many interesting stories and many great storytellers. And we know the subtleties from the stereotypes. We just need to start developing them ourselves. Still another involves working more closely with outside film makers to provide accurate information about ourselves. It is unlikely that film makers who have presented this area poorly in the past did so because they had it in for us. In most cases, any errors they may have made were based on misunderstandings and misinformation, coupled with a desire for the sensational. We should not neglect to consider the impact of these films on our cultural and social ecology. The state’s film commission is in a position to do more than recruit film projects wholesale. We try to entice film crews to come to Louisiana because they spend lots of money on hotels, meals and production support. But do we really want to be in the movies at any cost?
Belizaire, the Cajun, d. Glen Pitre, Côte Blanche Productions, 1985.
Campbell, Eward D. C. The Celluloid South: Hollywood and the Southern Myth. Knoxville: U of Tennessee Press, 1981.
Dirty Rice, d. Pat Mire, Attakapas Productions, 1998.
Fièvre jaune, d. Glen Pitre, Côte Blanche Productions, 1978..
Gutierrez, C. Paige. Cajun Foodways. U Press of Mississippi, 1992.
Huit piastres et demie, d. Glen Pitre, Côte Blanche Productions, 1980.
Kirby, Jack Temple. Media-Made Dixie: The South in the American Imagination. Baton Rouge: LSU press, 1978.
Le son des Cadiens (en quatre parties), d. André Gladu et Michel Brault, Nanouk Films, 1976.
Cajuns in Documentaries
Spend It All
Les Blank’s 1971 documentary Spend It All portrayed the Cajuns as a hard-living, hard-playing people who enjoyed a wonderfully exotic cuisine and danced uninhibitedly to intense, soulful music sung in French. Blank was obviously fascinated with the Cajuns, viewing them as a refreshing alternative to the bland, rootless American mainstream, and his films enshrine this fascination. His documentary technique was exciting and innovative. In the tradition of Michel Brault and Richard Leacock, Blank made ingenious use of the hand-held camera, following the action, surprising his audiences and himself with the spontaneous discoveries he made through the lens. Blank was based in California and his innovative documentary was certainly not unknown among filmmakers.
Spend It All intends to be non-fiction. Unlike Flaherty who directed real people in composed scenes designed to recreate reality, Blank filmed what was actually happening in front of his camera without direction. Yet, as in all documentaries, there is no purely objective truth here. Blank’s interests and curiosity led him to point his camera in certain directions and not in others. Further, logical connections were discovered and created in the editing room. In the end, even non-fictional films are in no small way the result of the vision and understanding of the filmmaker. Blank’s admiration for the earthy values he found among rural Cajuns is due in part to his own disenchantment with the American melting pot. Furthermore, if he made a film about the Cajuns, it was not to show how they are the same as everyone else, but how they are different. He had no interest in showing Cajuns going to work at ordinary jobs in ordinary cars on ordinary highways, or cooking on ordinary stoves in ordinary kitchens, or watching television or going to the bank, or shopping at Winn Dixie. In the end, he did not make a film about the Cajuns. He made a film about what he found unusual and exciting and different about the Cajuns.
Unfortunately, when audiences in Peoria, or Chicago, or Tallahassee, or Laramie view Blank’s documentary, they see it as a film about the Cajuns. This is a problem common to documentaries, especially those filmed not in some aboriginal tribe where everything really is different, but in America where many things are similar, the eccentricities of a culture end up defining it. In Spend It All, the Cajuns are portrayed as a rural, hunting and gathering society living off the bounty of the land. There is little indication of long-term labor. People are shown hard at work catching shrimp, crabs, oysters and fish, but the cottage industry of selling seafood appears to be an afterthought, as the fishing process is followed by the construction of a home-made sign: Shrimp for sale. There are no shots of an urban center. The documenter’s own technique is partially responsible for some of this portrayal. To take advantage of natural light, Blank shot almost exclusively outside. This makes for beautiful cinematography, but gives the impression that Cajuns cook, eat, and do most everything else outside.
Blank was also a male filmmaker fascinated by the male dominated public performance aspects of Cajun culture, such as festive cooking, horse racing, storytelling, and music. This approach focused on Cajun machismo, with the all-out stretch run at the quarter horse track used as a metaphor for the all-out “bon temps” philosophy that obviously intrigued Blank. In this highly impressionistic view, the complexity of contemporary Cajun society is ignored. Cajun women and their role in Louisiana French society, for example are all but neglected.
The Good Times are Killing Me
In 1975, another documentary focused on rural and small-town (Mamou, Eunice and Basile) Cajuns. The Good Times Are Killing Me was produced by TVTV, a group based in California and New York experimenting with the use of new highly portable television equipment, the first mini-cams. Their documentary was edited from hundreds of hours of relatively inexpensive videotape recorded with the help of community leaders such as Paul Tate, Revon Reed and Dewey Balfa. Local projections of raw footage drew praise from locals. The final version, however, portrayed the Cajuns as a strange tribe of vulgar, hard-partying, drunks, the front-line in a losing battle for cultural and ethnic survival in America. Nathan Abshire, an impoverished, alcoholic musician, embittered and despondent about his son’s recent arrest for the burglary and theft of a drugstore, is defined as “everybody’s idol.” Louis Landreneau is presented dressing as a woman, complete with brassiere and pantyhose, wig and makeup, under the careful supervision of his mother, without explaining that he is preparing for his community’s Mardi Gras celebration. Cajun women finally appear on the screen, in a beauty shop scene set up by one of the women crew members with the assurance that the vulgar jokes they were telling would not be used in the documentary; they were.
By the time the woman’s husband heard the whole sordid conversation on television, the crew was safely back in California. The Mardi Gras is eventually presented with no explanation other than the definitions gathered by the fascinated but unenlightened crew from drunken participants. The Good Times Are Killing Me was prominently funded by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. It aired nationally on the PBS network in 1975, attracting much attention to the Cajuns, to the chagrin of most of those involved on the local level. Local contact person Dewey Balfa wept when he saw the result of his collaboration. Council for the Development of French in Louisiana Chairman James Domengeaux threatened a class action suit against TVTV. The suit was never filed.
J’ai été au bal
California-based record producer Chris Strachwitz teamed up with filmmaker Les Blank to produce a documentary on the history and development of Cajun music and zydeco called J’ai été au bal. Blank, who had always avoided narration in his documentaries was talked into using it in this film. In fact, the very structure and movement of the film are based on the narration provided through interviews with insiders such as Marc Savoy, Michael Doucet and myself. In a quest for accuracy, Strachwitz willingly subjected his project to constant editorial input from his major consultants.
WLAE public television in New Orleans aired Cajun Crossroads, a carefully documented local production by Karen Snyder, heavily based on interviews with the historians, linguists, sociologists and folklorists who are just now discovering the nature of Cajun culture and who all served as editorial consultants on the project. Crossroads avoids the usual speed of media presentations, which tend to flit from one image to another, supposedly to keep the attention of the audience. This locally produced documentary dares to dwell on characters and issues long enough to present the culture in its complexity.
Some documentaries are not so much about the Cajuns as about facets of Cajun life. Patrick Mire and Charles Bush have produced two documentaries that represent a more unselfconscious look at Cajun folklife from the inside. Anything I Catch explores the tradition of handfishing and includes both exciting footage of this disappearing practice and engaging commentary about the relationship between natural and cultural resources. Going far beyond the portrayal of the country Mardi Gras as a mindless drunk, Dance for a Chicken traces the complex history of the celebration and shows the rich diversity of its contemporary versions as found in communities across South Louisiana, including the variety in songs and dances, costumes and masks, ceremonial begging traditions and ritual floggings. This fascinating documentary shows indirectly but effectively how communities define themselves through cultural expression.
Barry Ancelet, A List of Documentaries Touching on Louisiana French Culture
Acadie Liberté (Pierre Radford, U.S. National Park Service and Productions du Phare, 1993; 40:00) A documentary on the history and evolution of the Acadians, including their origins in France, their pre-dispersal society in Acadie, the exile experience and the subsequent diaspora experience.
Against the Tide (Pat Mire/Louisiana Public Broadcasting; 58:00; English and French, with subtitles) The history and evolution of the Acadians and their transformation to Cajuns in Louisiana after the exile.
Alligator Hunters: A Louisiana Legacy (Gerard Sellers/Islands of the Marsh, 1987; 59:30; English and French) Based on oral histories from Vermilion Parish alligator hunters.
Always for Pleasure (Les Blank/Flower Films, 1978; 58:00; English) A look at Mardi Gras in New Orleans, especially the Black Mardi Gras “Indians” and neighborhood krewes.
American Creole: New Orleans Reunion (Glen Pitre, Michelle Benoit, Louisiana Public Broadcasting, 2006; 57:00) An examination of the effects of Katrina on New Orleans Creole musical culture.
Anything I Catch: The Handfishing Story (Pat Mire/Attakapas, 1990; 28:00; English and French, with subtitles) A study of the relationship between natural and cultural ecology, tracing the development of the tradition of catching fish by hand.
Les Attakapas (Le Théâtre Cadien; French) A dramatization of the play, directed by James Fontenot.
Les Blues de Balfa (Aginsky/Flower Films, 1983; 28:00; mostly English) A portrayal of the Balfa family tradition, including the impact of this remarkable family on the local and national scenes.
Les Cadiens (TV-Québec, 1999)
Les Cadiens de la Paroisse Vermillon (Gerard Sellers/Islands of the Marsh, n.d.; French) A presentation of the folklife and traditions of Vermilion Parish.
Cajun Country (Lomax/American Patchwork, 1989; 58:00; English and French, with subtitles) An ambitious (though slightly flawed) overview of Louisiana French culture, including Cajun, Creole and Native American, with lots of anthropological footage comparing these with their various sources of influence including western France, Canada, Africa, and the Caribbean.
Cajun Crossroads (WLAE, 1984; 58:00; English and French, with subtitles) A leisurely conversation with many of the principals of the Louisiana French movement about the history and development of Cajun culture and language.
Cajun Visits (Aginsky/Flower Films, 1983; 29:00; French, with subtitles) A series of vignettes with some interesting Cajun musicians, such as Robert Jardell, Dewey Balfa, and Dennis McGee; informal but informative.
Clifton Chenier: The King of Zydeco (Arhoolie, 1987; 54:00; mostly English) Hot footage of the Zydeco master in performance in his prime interspersed with interviews.
Contre Vents, Contre Marées (Zachary Richard, AmerImage/Spectra, 2002; 80:00) A French-language based documentary which follows generally the same lines as Against the Tide.
Crawfish Pie: The History of Louisiana Music (Robert Vernon, Louisiana Music Association / Louisiana Music Commission / Louisiana Public Broadcasting, 2003)
The Creole Controversy (WLAE; 28:00; English) An interesting exploration of the controversy over the term and its usage among various culture groups, especially in the New Orleans context.
Cris sur le bayou (d. Danic Champoux, Urbania, Montréal, 2016.) A look at contemporary Louisiana French culture through the perspective of Barry Jean Ancelet and his alter ego, Jean Arceneaux.
Dance for a Chicken: The Cajun Country Mardi Gras (Pat Mire/Attakapas, 1993; 58:00; English and French, with subtitles) A thorough presentation of the origins and current variety of the Mardi Gras on the Louisiana prairies.
Dedans le sud de la Louisiane (Jean-Pierre Brunot, 1973; 38:00; French) A romantic look at Cajun country by a young French filmmaker discovering this French part of American for the first time; includes much music.
Des bayous à la toundra: Un regard sur le français louisianais d’aujourd’hui qui nous interpelle tous, les Franaméricains (d. Daniel Rocque, J’écris l’image, Québec, 2011) A documentary on status of French in Louisiana.
Dry Wood (Les Blank/Flower Films, 1973; 37:00; French and English, with subtitles) A study of the Ardoin and Fontenot clans of Creole musicians, focusing especially on Alphonse “Bois-sec” Ardoin and his family band. Includes some troubling footage of a men’s outdoor party towards the end.
Evangeline en quête (Ginette Pellerin/Office National du Film [Canada], 1996; French and English) An exploration of the Evangeline myth and its importance in Acadian societies from Nova Scotia to Louisiana.
First Cousins: Cajun and Creole Music in South Louisiana (d. Moriah and Elista Istre, Fleurish Films, 2016. A recent look at the relationship between Cajun and Creole music and musicians.
From the Wake of the Bow (WLAE)
Good for What Ails You (Glen Pitre/Côte Blanche Productions, 1998; 58:00; English and French, with subtitles) A study of traditional medicine and faith healing featuring several Cajun, Creole and Houma traiteurs.
The Good Times Are Killing Me (Paul Goldsmith/TVTV, 1975; 58:00; English and French, with subtitles) A highly criticized, warts-and-all documentary by TVTV on prairie Cajun culture, centered around Basile and Mamou; includes much objectionable and even offensive material.
Gumbo (Stephen Duplantier/Côte Blanche, n.d.; 30:00; English and French, with subtitles) A presentation of the origins and influences of Cajun cuisine.
Hidden Nation: The Story of the Houmas (Barbara Sillery/Keepsake Productions, 1993; 57:00; English) A detailed portrayal of the history and culture of the Houma nation and its quest for recognition.
Hot Pepper: The Life and Music of Clifton Chenier (Les Blank/Flower Films, 1973; 55:00; mostly English) A behind-the-scenes portrayal of Clifton Chenier, including much music in its own natural context (places such as the Blue Angel Club in Lafayette); a companion film to Blank’s Dry Wood. Includes strong language and content in some passages.
Hurricane on the Bayou (Greg MacGillivray, Glen Pitre, MacGillivray Freeman Films, 2007) An IMAX presentation of the effects of hurricanes on the fragile coastal ecology of South Louisiana. Includes footage of Katrina and its effects on New Orleans and the bayous and marshes of the surrounding area.
I Always Do my Collars First: A Film about Ironing. (Allison Bohl, Connie Castille, 2006; 25:00) A documentary on the seemingly tiny issue of ironing that ultimately provides a penetrating view into the important but usually invisible practice of everyday work.
J’ai été au bal: The Cajun and Zydeco Music of Louisiana (Chris Strachwitz, Les Blank and Maureen Gosling/Brazos Films, 1989; 84:00; English and French, with subtitles) A thorough presentation of origins and development of both Cajun music and Zydeco and the relationship between these two sister cultures and sounds.
Joie de Cajun (d. Joseph Mercardante, Las Nubes, 1987) A history of the Acadians and the transformation from Acadians to Cajuns in the context of South Louisiana.
King Crawfish (Connie Castille, 2010; 48 minutes) A presentation of South Louisiana’s crawfish industry and the culture that is associated with it.
Louisiana Blues (d. Jean-Pierre Brunot, 1992-93)
Louisiana Story (Robert Flaherty/Standard Oil, 1948; 79:00; English and French, with subtitles) A moving docu-drama about the arrival of the oil industry in South Louisiana and its effects on a Cajun family living on the edge of the swamp.
Louisiana Story: Reverse Angle (d. Tika Laudun, Louisiana Public Broadcasting, 2007-08) A documentary on the making of Louisiana Story.
Make ‘em Dance: The Hackberry Ramblers’ Story (Fretless Pictures and WYES-TV, 2003)
Marron (d. André Gladu, Office National du Film [Canada] 2005). A documentary on Louisiana Creole culture.
Mon cher camarade (d. Pat Mire) A documentary on the role of the Cajuns in World War II.
Musique en Louisiane (NTSC)
Noah: Juré (André Gladu/Office National du Film, 1986; 10:15; English) A short impressionistic presentation of a juré song by Clinvon Jones and friends about the Great Flood.
Raised on Rice and Gravy (Connie Castille, 2009; 20 minutes) A presentation of South Louisiana’s plate lunch culture.
Rhythm ‘n Bayous (d. Robert Mugge, Cowboy Booking International, 2001) An overview of musical traditions from throughout Louisiana, including Cajun music, zydeco, and Swamp Pop.
Rouge Bayou (Sylvie Marchand/A vue d’oeil – Biziga; 26:00; French) A highly stylized portrayal of the New Orleans voodoo scene and Louisiana Mardi Gras.
Soileau Mardi Gras (Michael McCallum/Crossover, n.d.; c. 10:00; English) A short presentation of the Black Creole Mardi Gras based in Soileau.
Le Son des Cajuns (4 parts, André Gladu and Michel Brault/Nanouk, 1976; 30:00 @; French):
Fred’s Lounge: A look at the popular radio show hosted by Revon Reed in Mamou, and the many musicians it brought out, including Nathan Abshire and the Landreneau cousins.
Ma chère terre: A look at the relationship between the music and its environment, featuring such musicians as Edius Naquin and the Deshotels twins.
Les Créoles: A look at the tradition of Black Creole musicians, including Canray Fontenot and the Ardoins.
Réveille: A look at the new generation of Cajun musicians, including Zachary Richard and Michael Doucet; features rare footage of the ephemeral group Coteau.
Spend It All (Les Blank/Flower Films, 1971)
Swapping Stories (d. Pat Mire, Maida Owens, Louisiana Public Broadcasting, 1998). A documentary based on the book of the same title by Carl Lindahl and Maida Owens, featuring storytelling traditions from throughout the state, including Cajun and Creole communities.
The Story of the Cajuns (d. Brenda Jepson, Crown of Maine Productions, 2012-13)
T-Galop: A Louisiana Horse Story (Connie Castille, 2012; 74 minutes) An examination of Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole horse culture, focusing on horsemanship as well as the reasons it developed, including the Louisiana cattle industry.
Trouble the Water (Tia Lessin, Carl Deal, HBO, 2008; 90:00) A presentation of Katrina and its aftermath, focusing on their effects on a couple from New Orleans that was stranded and eventually rescued.
Vent libre dessus le radio (d. Erik Charpentier, Francophonie d’Amerique, RDI/TV-Ontario, 1999)
Vivre pour manger (Stephen Duplantier/Côte Blanche, n.d.; 30:00; English and French, with subtitles) Another look at Cajun cuisine.
When the Levees Broke (Spike Lee, HBO, 2006; 255:00 (two parts). A study of the effects of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee failures and their effects on New Orleans culture and society.
Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of the Cajun and Creole Cooking of Louisiana (Les Blank, Flower, 1990; 31:00; mostly English, some French) The best foodways film on Cajun cuisine, featuring well-known Cajuns such as Marc and Ann Savoy.
Zachary Richard, toujours batailleur (d. Phil Comeau, Bellefeuille Productions, Montréal, 2016). An exploration of the Acadian diaspora and its effets through the perspective of singer, poet and activist Zachary Richard.
Zarico (André Gladu, Office National du Film, 1985; 60:00; French) A thorough presentation of the history and development of Zydeco, in French, with memorable performances and critical definitions.
Zydeco (Nick Spitzer, Flower Films, 1984; 57:00; English narration, French interviews, with subtitles) A community-based presentation of Zydeco and its context, with lots of oral history.