In a Sinking State: An Interview with Sandra Winther, Director of “Lowland Kids”

Photo Credit: Todd Martin

The idea that Louisiana is home to the first American climate change refugees is incredibly sad and somewhat poignant. It represents an uneasy and antagonistic modern relationship with a setting and an environment that we’ve been in balance with for centuries. Now, both sides are turning on each other, and the ramifications will be great. 

Lowland Kids, a new documentary covering the last teens to live on Isle de Jean Charles, LA, might be currently touring the festival circuit but is already creating a buzz and a stir. Sandra Winther and crew have captured a story and an angle of Gulf South living that is majestic and woeful all at once. Perhaps a run at our New Orleans Film Festival is in order?

I asked Sandra some questions on the film, the region, and her stylistic take on bringing this tale to a different life. We may not have much longer on this land or this planet, so heed these stories while you can, and demand action:

Bill Arceneaux: How are the few residents of Isle de Jean Charles these days?

Sandra Winther: Although the state has offered temporary housing to the remaining islanders, the final residents –including the Brunets– remain on the island to continue their lives as best they can. 

As powerful storms and floods have become a constant challenge, many families are grappling with the decision of whether to stay or go. Hurricane Barry overwhelmed the island with a 9-foot storm surge and a few of the residents were air evacuated by the US Coast Guard. Most of the already raised homes were unscathed, but the remaining low-level homes are now uninhabitable although the residents plan to rebuild and continue life on the island.

BA: Being the first American community to become climate change refugees essentially, I’d imagine this alone attracted the crew to document the story. How did you settle on the siblings featured in the film?

SW: The acknowledgment that the islanders were the first domestic climate change refugees was our initial interest, but it was the uniqueness of the island and its people that convinced us to pursue the story.

As we began interviewing the island’s residents I felt immediately drawn to Howard and Juliette. There was something so pure about them. A quiet strength, yet something fragile. And as I got to know them better, I only became more convinced. Their story had the ability to provide a different angle to the devastating situation –an angle that not only would tell the story of a sinking island but a story of loss, of growing up on the outskirts of America, of saying goodbye to the only place you’ve ever called home.

It took multiple visits to the island before the Brunet family allowed us to capture their story. Over the course of several months, William Crouse (producer) and I were able to create a close relationship with the siblings, their uncle Chris and family friend Mike  – one that broke down walls in unexpected ways. It was through this bond that we were able to tell this highly personal story.

BA: What kind of approach did you and your team take in following the people, in capturing the environment, and in editing the footage into a tale most compelling? 

SW: It was important to me from the beginning that our portrayal of the island stay true to our subjects’ experience and at the same time, I wanted to draw viewers into their world in part through the film’s narrative quality – this feeling of being right there with them as scenes unfold in real-time. Working with our cinematographer, Todd Martin, we came up with a look for the film that would capture the beauty of the island that we’ve all been so struck by. Isle de Jean Charles is a place of light. A place of freedom. And to the Brunet’s, it’s their everything.

When it came to the edit, I worked closely with our editor Laura Tomaselli in shaping the story, and I can’t give enough credit to her. The goal was always to engage audiences with the topic of climate change in a new way – through a coming of age story, a time capsule, a call to action, all in one– and I hope we’ve been successful at it.

BA: What did you end up learning about Isle de Jean Charles that you didn’t know before production? 

SW: Before working on this film, I was unaware of the challenges that Isle de Jean Charles is facing, and sadly I think that’s the case for many Americans. Coastal erosion poses a massive threat to the Southern coast of Louisiana, as well as other communities across the country, and I’m excited that Lowland Kids can be a part of spreading awareness and creating a conversation around the issue of climate change, alongside the political debate.

BA: What are the current plans for the film?

SW: The film has had a great festival run thus far, premiering at SXSW, winning a list of festivals and most recently receiving the Audience Award for Best Documentary at Palm Springs ShortFest. We’re currently planning a digital release later this summer, and look forward to getting the film out there for everyone to see. Our long term ambition is to continue exploring how teenagers are grappling with the real effects of our changing ecosystem, in a serialized or feature format. Stay tuned!

BA: Have members of the community seen the finished cut of Lowland Kids? If so, what do they think?

SW: The Brunet family has been an extremely important part of the film’s creation and it was screened for them on the island before its official premiere at SXSW. Their response was everything that I as a director would’ve hoped for –they were moved by our portrayal of the place that they love, they felt seen and heard– and this has only cemented the trust between them and us as filmmakers. My hope is that Lowland Kids won’t be the last time that we film together.

Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved. Follow him on Twitter: @billreviews

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