Born and raised far from the centers of power in the movie industry, writer-director Glen Pitre began his career in the 1980s as a DIY filmmaker, showing his homemade productions to audiences in his native Louisiana. But when a powerful new organization called the Sundance Institute got its hands on one of his screenplays, he shot quickly from obscurity to success, winning a coveted spot in the 1986 Cannes Film Festival competition lineup, a nationwide theatrical release, and praise from critics like Roger Ebert. Set in the mid-nineteenth century, Pitre’s debut feature, Belizaire the Cajun, tells the heroic story of a Cajun herbalist (Armand Assante) who defends his community from oppressive Anglo vigilantes and steals the heart of an unhappily married woman (Gail Youngs) in the process. The film benefitted from a larger budget and a more professionally experienced cast and crew than Pitre had been accustomed to, but much of its charm derives from the scrappy resourcefulness with which it achieves the look and feel of a period epic. To mark Belizaire’s arrival on the Criterion Channel, I spoke with Pitre about the making of the movie, the history of Cajun representation on-screen, and the turning point in American independent cinema at which the film emerged.
Your childhood experiences of Cajun culture have been a major influence on your filmmaking. Tell me about what it was like to grow up in Louisiana.
It was a largely homogenous community, and all the adults spoke French. My dad was a shrimper and owned a fishing boat, and all the commerce and the work remained in French much longer than it did for work on land. So that’s probably why I’m a little better at French than a lot of my contemporaries.
Everyone was related; it was just a matter of how distant a cousin someone was to you. We lived in a town called Cut Off, forty miles inland, but we were facing the gulf, so there were commercial fishermen in the community, and people who worked in offshore oil fields. It was a largely oral culture, and storytellers were revered. Not many people got rich, though a few went off to become sports heroes. But mostly we were interested in who could tell the best stories. The first several films I made were based on tales I heard when I was a kid.
How did you land on filmmaking as your primary way of capturing these elements of your culture?
When I was in high school, the PBS affiliate in New Orleans, which we could catch when the weather wasn’t too bad, started a film series on Thursday nights. It was centered on films from the Janus collection. There wasn’t a theater in our town, though there had been a drive-in theater that was blown over by a hurricane when I was nine years old. Three times a year my family would take a trip to New Orleans, where we could go see a movie. But because this didn’t happen with very much frequency, I mainly knew movies as Hollywood productions, and I thought that was all there was. When I saw these Janus films on TV, I found a model I could emulate. These movies were clearly done more modestly, but at the same time they were much more adventurous in their storytelling than the studio films, and they were also in other languages. That’s what got me started.
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