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Filmmaker Rabalais' examines cultural identity in “Finding Cajun”

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The University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Dr. Nathan Rabalais’ one-hour documentary film “Finding Cajun” examines language, culture and race in the context of a much-debated topic – Cajun identity.

The documentary, which Rabalais wrote and directed, can be streamed via Amazon Prime; it premiered on television last week on Louisiana Public Broadcasting. "Finding Cajun" has been shown at several festivals in Canada and the U.S.

In making the film, Rabalais interviewed academics, historians, sociologists and musicians. He “wanted to trace the evolution of Cajun identity from a wide perspective without trying to push a certain idea or viewpoint, because the term can mean different things to different people.”

As the filmmaker notes while narrating the documentary: “The origin of the word is about the only thing people seem to agree upon.”

The word “Cajun” is the English derivative of the French word Acadien. For some, it refers solely to descendants of French-speaking Acadians who settled in Louisiana after their expulsion from Canada’s maritime provinces in the 1700s, Rabalais explained.

“Others use the word much more loosely, in reference to just about anyone or anything from south Louisiana. And then there are countless other interpretations in between. It’s a very complex and personal question,” he added.

Rabalais, who was born in Eunice, La., and raised in Lafayette, joined UL Lafayette’s College of Liberal Arts last semester. He is a French Louisiana specialist for its Department of Modern Languages, and an assistant professor of French and Francophone Studies. He is also a research fellow at the college’s Center for Louisiana Studies.

Although Rabalais grew up listening to many of his family members speak French, his “fascination” with the language and Louisiana culture came later.

Shortly after Rabalais earned a bachelor’s degree in music from UL Lafayette in 2007 he was accepted into a graduate musicology program at the University of Strasbourg, France.

“That’s when I got really interested in French and culture and just kind of went all in – started interviewing people and studying the folktales and the language,” he said.

Rabalais ultimately switched gears, and decided to pursue a master’s degree in French from UL Lafayette, which he earned in 2011. Then, as part of a dual-diploma program, he earned a Ph.D. from Tulane University and the Université de Poitiers in France in 2015.

Rabalais started working on “Finding Cajun” in 2016, while an assistant professor at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

He and his brother David, a videographer, spent summer and holiday breaks traveling to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and south Louisiana. The interviews and footage gathered during those trips was molded into an early version of the film.

That initial effort premiered in 2019 at the Cinema on the Bayou Film Festival in Lafayette. “Finding Cajun” won the festival’s “Director’s Choice Award” – and enough notice to propel the project forward.

Rabalais received several grants, including the Richard Guidry Cajun and Creole Language Fund. That enabled him to add interviews and archival footage provided by LPB and the Center for Louisiana Studies. He also redid the film’s music, which he composed and performed.

Learn more about “Finding Cajun” on the film’s Facebook page.

Image caption: The University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Dr. Nathan Rabalais’ one-hour documentary film “Finding Cajun” examines language, culture and race in the context of a much-debated topic – Cajun identity. The film can be streamed via Amazon Prime. It’s TV premier was last week on Louisiana Public Broadcasting. Image credit: University of Louisiana at Lafayette

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