Wednesday, March 28, 2012
The vast majority of New Jersey Italians aren’t at all like what’s broadcast to the country on the reality show Jersey Shore. Likewise, there’s more to Louisiana Cajuns than America sees on Swamp People.
And it’s such stereotypes folklorist and filmmaker Conni Castille counters with her award-winning documentaries.
Castille, assistant director for Moving Image Arts at UL, made the leap from the behavior sciences to the arts in a move that was bridged by her undergrad degree in philosophy. It proved to be the kind of move that earned a showing of Castille’s documentary, I Always Do My Collars First, at the Cannes Short Film Corner in 2007.
Years ago as a teenage mother, Castille moved to Florida because she was “embarrassed to be Cajun,” she says. “I think everybody is embarrassed where they grow up, or they have this desire to move away. But I think for me and maybe people who are coming from a place that has a really strong culture, it may be even more pronounced.”
And for Castille, it was the Cajun stereotype: “We talked funny and we were stupid. That’s how we were portrayed. And I kind of believed that.”
But turning away from her culture brought her back home with a new take on it. Castille recalls meeting people in Florida who were taken aback when she spoke.
“They were like, ‘What country are you from?’ because of my accent. They really thought I was speaking English as a second language,” Castille says, adding that she would respond with, “No, I’m from Louisiana. And they’re like, ‘Are you Cajun?’ And it was like they thought this was such an exotic thing. They were very curious about Cajuns. And this happened a few times and finally it occurred to me I’m missing something, obviously.”
During her self-imposed five-year exile, Castille had taken community college courses and when she got back to Acadiana, she enrolled at UL at age 28. It was here that she began to explore her heritage and herself, too.
“I’m at the age where I’m not only asking questions about my place, my home, but also about myself,” she says. “I guess that’s what leads me to this philosophy degree because those are the big, real questions you talk about in philosophy.”
One of the things you study in philosophy is the theory of man and what it means to be human. In pursuing her master’s degree in English/folklore, she wrote a paper about ironing inspired by an article by Judith Levin, who suggested that there’s a lot to be learned about housework.
“Just cleaning your house, let’s say, is passed on from mothers to daughters. There are different ways to clean houses and you clean it to different degrees depending on who’s coming over,” says Castille. So, with a thesis to do and that in mind, Castille turned to her own mother who learned to iron from her mother and who gladly let her daughter know the routine.
“Washing was such a big deal. Monday’s she spent all day just washing clothes on a ringer type machine, all by hand. You hung it on a line and you didn’t have time to iron it that day, so you rolled it up, dampened it, stuffed it in a pillow case and put it in the icebox until the next day when you had time to iron it,” Castille recalls her mother telling her.
Cook the starch. No electric iron, keep it hot on a stove. No question that this would pique the interest of a folklorist, so Castille interviewed several women in Breaux Bridge for her paper.
“For some reason, I’m like, ‘This needs to be a documentary,’” says Castille, adding that at the time she wasn’t necessarily into film or documentaries. “I felt it lent itself to visual expression.”
As it happened, Charles Richard had just been hired to put together a cinema studies degree program at UL and he was looking for a pilot project for the program. In addition, Castille met Allison Bohl, who was a senior in visual arts and pitched the idea to her.
Bohl got on board and has since handled the camera through all of Castille’s documentaries, which includes I Always Do My Collars First, Raised on Rice and Gravy, Congres Mondial de Acadien, King Crawfish, and the just released T-Galop: A Louisiana Horse Story, an examination of South Louisiana’s equine traditions.
Castille’s role is that of producer, director writer, and researcher.
“We have this understanding of aesthetic that we both kind of were on the same page with,” Castille says. “Until you work on other projects with other people do you realize how lucky that is, how rare that is.”
And thanks to cuts by the Jindal administration, rare is a key word these days in pursuit of funding for such artistic ventures. The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and The Louisiana Division of the Arts, as administered through the Acadiana Center for the Arts, have been left bleeding from the cuts.
“So, yeah, I’d like to continue, but it comes down to practical issues,” Castille says. “Again, there’s no shortage of content. There are stories to be told, celebrated. There’s a shortage of government vision. They keep cutting the arts and culture, and isn’t that what South Louisiana is supposed to be about?
“I always wanted a bumper sticker: It’s the culture, stupid,” she says. “You know? C’mon.”