UT-Austin filmmakers collaborate to create film about south Louisiana

Alex Walheim

The marshes and Cajun culture in South Louisiana are slowly disappearing, according to a documentary shown at the Bullock Texas State History Museum on Saturday. 

Filmmakers Don Howard and Jim Shelton created “By the River of Babylon: An Elegy for South Louisiana” to document the erosion of land that has occurred over the course of the last 70 years. The construction of levees were beneficial in preventing flooding of the Mississippi River but were harmful in how they destroyed some wildlife, according to the film. 

“The river flooding is what dispersed silt throughout the land so that it would rise again,” said Shelton, an academic counselor in the athletic department. “And now that it’s got the levees built up, it doesn’t flood anymore, so there’s nothing to replenish the land.”

Another contributing factor is the installation of oil pipelines in the land between saltwater and freshwater, the filmmakers said.

“When you cut a pipeline through [the land], the saltwater goes in and kills everything at first,” Howard, a radio-television-film professor, said. “In the first few years, what it does is kill all the grass it’s holding on this land.”  

Jennifer Caplan, psychology and communications senior, said the large loss of marshland surprised her. 

“I learned more about the whole marsh situation,” Caplan said. “I didn’t realize the extent of it. You hear a lot about it, but it’s really mind-blowing to hear the comparison of the size of a football field disappearing every hour for the past 70 years. I can’t even wrap my brain around that.”

Howard and Shelton said they wanted to document the Cajun culture of South Louisiana before it dies out.

“The New Orleans story gets told over and over and over again because so many tourists go there,” Howard said. “It’s the one side of this culture that anybody knows about. What we were hoping to get across was this is a regional problem.” 

Too few people know about the losses the larger group of Cajuns have experienced because of the overwhelming emphasis on New Orleans’ loss during Hurricane Katrina, according to Shelton.

“New Orleans is a completely different place than Cajun country and Creole country,” Shelton said. “They’re experiencing loss in the same way that people in New Orleans had. New Orleans is just the star that everybody knows about.”