Directing a bayou biopic: Nathan Rabalais talks French language study, film production in Quebec and Louisiana

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Nathan Rabalais worked with his brother David Rabalais to complete “Finding Cajun,” a documentary which examines Cajun identity throughout North America. COURTESY PHOTO / NATHAN RABALAIS

Assistant professor of French and Francophone studies Nathan Rabalais adds director to his many titles with his production, “Finding Cajun.”

Rabalais has been teaching at the College of William and Mary since 2015 and was hired immediately following graduate school. He is currently on research leave until January of next year.

After receiving a bachelor’s in music theory/composition and guitar performance from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Rabalais continued to study music, this time at the University of Strasbourg in France. He went back to Louisiana to obtain a master’s in French, followed by his doctorate in French studies from Tulane University. Rabalais also holds a Ph.D. in langues et littératures from the Université de Poitiers.

“I pretty much work and teach on Quebec, Acadia, which are both in Canada, and Louisiana,” Rabalais said. “So I teach, you know, literature and popular culture and cinema in those areas.”

“I pretty much work and teach on Quebec, Acadia, which are both in Canada, and Louisiana,” Rabalais said. “So I teach, you know, literature and popular culture and cinema in those areas.”

His primary area of study is the diverse literatures, cultures and languages of Francophone North America, including regions such as French and Creole Louisiana, Acadia and Quebec. He also explores the related folklore and orality, but more specifically, the interaction between a community’s language and the identity that stems from that linguistic heritage.

“I pretty much focus on French-speaking Louisiana, Creole culture and the Acadian culture of Canada,” Rabalais said. “Acadia is not an exact region. It’s more defined by like the French-speaking Acadian people that live in certain areas. … I’m interested in how language and identity interact.”

Rabalais, with the help of his brother, David, directed a documentary highlighting the origin and evolution of the Cajun identity in North America, titled “Finding Cajun.” One of his goals with the documentary was to move away from the myths that surround the Cajun identity and history.

“I wanted people, especially my own community in Louisiana, to hear these ideas because it’s kind of dismantling a lot of myths about identity and where this culture came from,” Rabalais said. “It’s been kind of distilled into one group that came to Louisiana a long time ago, the Acadians, when the British deported them from the original colony. That’s kind of been like the origin myth of Cajun culture, is that one group, when there’s a lot more to it.

Rabalais said that recognizing different aspects of Cajun culture in his documentary would help make his work more accessible to viewers.

“There’s the Haitian revolution, there’s slavery … It’s really complex,” Rabalais said. “I kind of wanted to make a documentary to have it more, I say accessible, but you know, a way for people to hear these ideas and re-evaluate what Cajun means to them today.”

While the film received a portion of its funding from his research fund, Rabalais and his brother had to cover a significant portion of the film’s expenses. According to Rabalais, most of the money went toward traveling to Canada, where over half of the film was shot.

“The hardest part was just not having money,” Rabalais said. “We were really grateful to have about a little over $2,000 … but that was it, which is like nothing. $15,000 is like a bare minimum, you know, for a documentary. … Pretty much what that did was it allowed us to drive up to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to film there.”

While most directors outsource tasks like editing the final product and creating music, the Rabalais brothers were responsible for all the post-production steps.

“We had to do everything ourselves,” Rabalais said. “The sound, all the editing, the subtitles. Directors don’t usually do their own subtitles, you know, they usually outsource, so that was the most difficult part was just doing every single little thing ourselves, just me and my brother.”

Their hard work paid off — “Finding Cajun” won an award at Cinema on the Bayou, a film festival in Lafayette, Louisiana, just days after being released.

“[Finding Cajun] just premiered this past Wednesday at … it was called Cinema on the Bayou festival, and so we did closing night,” Rabalais said. “It was awesome. We sold out. On Sunday … we won the director’s award. That was really exciting because … when we talk about identity and you play it in the heart of that community that you’re talking about, I was just really nervous … I didn’t know how [people in the audience] were going to react. So, that was a nice surprise.”

Apart from interacting with those being interviewed for the film, Rabalais greatly enjoyed the finishing touches: the music.

“The most fun part was definitely playing the music,” Rabalais said. “… Once it was done, I just got to play the music for it, which actually only took like three hours, but it was the most fun part because it was all done. I just had to set the mood for it basically, and that was neat.”

Just a year prior to the release of the documentary, Rabalais completed a collection of original poetry titled “Le Hantage,” which was published by Les Éditions Tintamarre in 2018.

“It’s about processing memory, especially kind of traumatic memory, and how memory kind of has a will of its own, a time of its own.”

“It’s about processing memory, especially kind of traumatic memory, and how memory kind of has a will of its own, a time of its own,” Rabalais said. “It might come in like waves. There’s a lot of water imagery. Sometimes it’s a trickle, sometimes it’s a flood, which ties into the Louisiana landscape and it’s in a very Louisiana, French kind of dialect. My brother did the photography for [the book].”

While on leave, Rabalais is working on a new book. This time, he is compiling research on Louisiana folklore.

“It is a book on Louisiana folklore and it looks at different folklore figures that all came from somewhere else,” Rabalais said. “So like France, or Africa, or Canada, and how they changed. … Did any bad guys become good guys or vice versa, or did the moral of the story change. I try to look at that in the context of the history and what these groups went though and try to figure out ‘it would make sense if this happened because this experience, this shared experience.’ That’s kind of the premise of the book.”

Looking forward, Rabalais is interested in creating another documentary.

“I’m kind of already thinking about another documentary on coastal erosion in Louisiana,” Rabalais said. “That’s going to talk about the human aspect because there’s a lot of indigenous French-speaking Native-American tribes that live there on the coast and sort of the more scientific aspect of it. That’ll be for maybe in a couple of years.”