Screen Notes: Filmmaker lives and works to capture Cajun essence

The Kansas City Star

The Kansas City Star

Pat Mire grew up on a farm. He never went to college. Until about 20 years ago he worked in oil or rice fields.

Not exactly the background you'd expect of a prize-winning film director.

Nevertheless, Mire (it's pronounced "Meer") has made a career of documenting on film the Cajun culture in which he was reared in rural Eunice, La.

Two of his hourlong documentaries -- 1993's "Dance for a Chicken," an examination of the Mardi Gras celebrations of rural Louisiana, and 2000's "Against the Tide," a study of 400 years of Cajun history and culture -- will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Tivoli Manor Square Theater. Mire will attend and discuss his work in a post-screening Q&A session.

To hear the 49-year-old Mire tell it, he was destined to make movies. Even as a child he was fascinated by the process. The seminal moment, he said, was in the early '60s when he was sitting with his brother Louis in a small-town movie theater.

"I don't even remember what the movie was," Mire said. "All of a sudden I felt like my seat was unbolted and I was being pulled toward the screen.

"I asked, `Lou, how did they do that?' He said, `Shut up and watch the show.' "

"It wasn't until years later that I realized it was a dolly shot, a tracking shot. My brother was wrapped up in the story, but I was noticing the technology, what was going on behind the camera."

Mire's first taste of cinematic success was 1990's "Anything I Catch," a documentary short about how members of the Mire family catch huge catfish and turtles with their bare hands. Made for $10,400, the film played so often on television that Mire lived off the proceeds for two years.

"Dance for a Chicken," shot nearly a decade ago, was born of Mire's desire to give an accurate impression of what a traditional Cajun Mardi Gras celebration is all about. A highlight of the event is a posse of costumed, clowning men who ride on horseback through the parish, collecting contributions of food (especially chickens) from residents to create a gumbo dinner for the entire community.

"It's a day where people are making fun of each other. It's game-playing," Mire said. "Outside scholars take it seriously. They take their footage home and they get excited because it's wonderful and colorful. But they're blinded by the surface glare. They never go deeper than that. Our Mardi Gras is a lot more than drunks falling off horses."

For its insider's examination of the history of the celebration and its profound meaning to Cajun communities, "Dance for a Chicken" won the Award of Excellence at the American Anthropological Film Festival.

"Against the Tide" is a more formal film, filled with historical re-enactments that tell the story of the settlement of Louisiana by people displaced from the Canadian colony of Acadia by the French and Indian War of the 1750s.

"Lots of people have told the story, but not very well," Mire said.

Though he's known mostly for documentaries such as "Forever My Love: Music From the Bayou" (2002), "Swapping Stories: Folktales From Louisiana" (1998) and "Legends of Louisiana" (1991), Mire also wrote and directed a fictional feature, 1997's "Dirty Rice." But like all his work, the drama was set in Cajun country.

Behind his films, Mire said, is his determination to preserve Cajun culture.

"Cajuns in general lead a fearful existence. We're the only European-Americans who have been deported, who have undergone ethnic cleansing. As long as we've been here in Louisiana it's been a fearful existence, wondering how long we can retain our uniqueness. The American mainstream is seductive and sexy, there's no denying it, and every Cajun lives with a foot in two camps.

"But 100 years from now we'll still have Cajun culture. Our kids may rap and hip-hop, but there's also a group of young traditionalists who are keeping the Cajun essence alive. It won't be Cajun culture as we know it now, but it'll be there. Sure."