The Storytellers’ Story
Two filmmakers from different generations and different parts of the state capture the everyday essence of Acadiana together.
terri fensel photographs
Considering the sources and the mastery with which they find meaning in the mundane, the story behind how the storytellers met and joined forces is, well, kind of a non-story.
For the past five years, writer Conni Castille and cinematographer Allison Bohl have artistically dissected what the rest of us might consider the everyday ordinary. Whether it’s steaming wrinkles out of linens or a greasy serving spoon piling generous portions on a plate, these two local documentary filmmakers dig beneath our routines and extract and examine the social issues that rest below. Using seemingly dull subject matter as a conduit, they’ve offered outsiders an insider’s take on why Acadiana is the way it is. If you haven’t seen one already, Castille and Bohl’s short films are thought-provoking glimpses into a sometimes-celebrated, sometimes-snickered-at way of life – complex narratives told by unique characters who remain genuine enough to represent Cajuns as a whole.
“Importance can be found in those things we consider unimportant,” Bohl says with a hint of reverence in her voice. “So much of our lives and the things we do might appear small, but when you look into it, you find yourself asking questions about generations or people or traditions. That’s what Conni really has a gift at finding, and those are the stories we do.”
Their own story, conversely, is pretty bland.
Here’s the gist: They met at a bar in 2006 and then later at a play. Castille is 20 years Bohl’s senior, even though both were college students at ULL at the same time (Castille chasing a master’s while Bohl was a senior majoring in visual arts). After the play, Castille approached Bohl and asked, “Hey, would you be interested in doing a documentary about ironing?” Without a pause, Bohl replied, “Yeah, sure!”
“And that was it,” Bohl says before a laugh.
That’s it? No questions asked? Not even an “Ironing? Really?!”?
“Part of Allison’s disposition and personality is that she’s game for anything,” Castille explains. “I didn’t really know how to sell it [to her], so thankfully she didn’t need it to be sold. The sell-job was done to my professor at UL [Charles Richard], who was new and just started a film program. We had one camera. And this was going to be the guinea pig for the birth of this interdisciplinary program. He’s going to put all his eggs in a basket of ironing?”
Richard chose to trust Castille’s vision. The result was I Always Do My Collars First, a 24-minute film that chronicled the importance of ironing shirts and pants for four Cajun women and the cultural significance attached to this task – because, as the documentary explains, having clean, pressed garments was a way for many Cajuns to fight back against cultural stereotypes and blur socioeconomic barriers between the rich and poor. “If you were put-together,” Castille says, “you could go anywhere. It didn’t matter where you were from.” Castille and Bohl’s first documentary was screened at the Cannes Short Film Corner and the Hot Springs Film Festival and earned the 2007 Louisiana Filmmaker Award at the New Orleans Film Festival.
A year later, the duo transitioned from ironing to eating by monitoring the weekday bustle at three Acadiana plate-lunch restaurants in the film Raised on Rice and Gravy – another documentary well-decorated by various film festivals. While most simply see hungry laborers devouring fried seafood or baked chicken, Castille and Bohl conveyed how these humble establishments unknowingly uphold Cajun and Creole traditions while simultaneously giving breath to the long-lost art of face-to-face conversation. Castille and Bohl’s third and most recent documentary, King Crawfish, aired on The Documentary Channel and was nominated for the cable TV channel’s Best of Doc award in 2011. Twice as long as the duo’s previous two films, King Crawfish unravels how Louisiana festivals shape and define the image of the region, in particular Breaux Bridge’s annual Crawfish Festival.
“In front of crowds as big as 30,000 people, these communities go up on stage and say: ‘This is Cajun. This is our music. This is our culture,’” Castille says. “And then [tourists] leave with this impression. So that’s a lot of responsibility. So we wondered, how do the towns monitor it? How do they know they are getting it right?”
It’s a tad ironic that all of Castille’s film topics delve into the few remaining pockets of authentic Cajun culture, considering that she wished to distance herself from her heritage for most of her youth. There was a time, Castille admits, that she was “embarrassed” to be from South Louisiana because of the negative stereotypes attached to its residents.
“I couldn’t wait to move away,” Castille says. “I think a lot of young people feel that way, not just here but everywhere. And then when I did move away [to Florida], people asked, ‘Are you Cajun?’ I became exotic and different in a good way. I developed an identity. I was interesting to them, so when I came home, I was ready to embrace this and explore this.”
For Bohl, who came to ULL from Bossier City, filmmaking was her indoctrination by fire into the nuances of South Louisiana – a process helped along by Castille’s familiarity with the area. Despite their many differences – upbringing, age, demeanor – Castille and Bohl have developed a routine and trust in each other’s artistic abilities. Bohl marvels at Castille’s pre-production skills, especially finding subjects and people through which and whom to tell a story.
“I think we both meet in the middle as far as our personalities,” Bohl says. “Conni has a much more youthful way about her. She’s extremely excited about life and stories, getting to know people. That, right there, makes her somewhat different than what you might think. And I’m 27, but I think Conni can see my drive to be better and better myself as an artist, and she respects that. We’ve fallen into our certain places and certain roles. … I don’t know. It just kind of works.”