ST. MARTINVILLE — From a poem to a silent film to a maid who sells bread, the story of “Evangeline” has been a vital part of Cajun culture for more than 170 years even though it was the creation of a Yankee who never visited Louisiana.
Now, filmmaker Jillian Hall is trying to capture the cultural impact of the tale of the two lovers separated by exile through interviews with people who have grown up in the town along the banks of Bayou Teche where the story unfolds.
Hall is conducting the interviews a short distance from where the Evangeline Oak still stands, the place where Evangeline Bellefontaine was said to have waited to be reunited with her lover, Gabriel Lajeunesse, after their expulsion from Acadia by the British.
“I’ve always wondered who Evangeline was and what the significance was,” said Hall, who said the finished film will combine live action with animation.
A native of Austin, Texas, Hall currently lives in Baton Rouge and is member of All Ya'll, which is a Southern Documentary Filmmaker Collective.
“Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie” was first penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1847 and told the story of two lovers, Evangeline and Gabriel, who were separated by the Acadian exile on their wedding day and were not reunited until Gabriel was on his deathbed.
Since it was written, the poem has been translated into 125 different languages and included in over 250 different editions. There are also museums and sites dedicated to Evangeline all over St. Martinville, the town where, as the tale would have it, she eventually came to settle after her displacement.
Hall, along with the project’s animator, Lisa Ray, and crewman Zack Godshall, set up in the upstairs area of the Duchamp Opera House in St. Martinville on Saturday, as they got residents to talk about the famous tale.
Locals told them various versions of the story they had heard over the years. They talked about the 1929 silent film starring Dolores Del Rio and the possibility that a real Evangeline and Gabriel might have existed during the Acadian exile from Nova Scotia with an experience like the one related in Longfellow’s poem.
Joy Blanchard and her father, Bootsie, were among the Cajuns who came to discuss the story on camera. Although the two could talk at length of the historical significance of the story and the reality of exile, they were split on whether the story’s star-crossed couple had actually existed.
“I don’t think there was a real Evangeline,” Joy Blanchard said. “I think it’s romantic to think someone sat under a tree waiting for their true love, but I don’t think realistically anyone would have done that.”
Longfellow never intended for the poem to be considered true history, but some contend it could have been real because he was originally told the tale by others. While some consider it the truth and others just a poem, some say it is more of an allegory that highlights the strife the Cajun people went through during their diaspora.
“I was just taken with the many different versions, the significance they hold for the Cajun people and people who were forced to flee in general. I think it’s a story that just resonates with people,” Hall said.
The filming will continue from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday and all who grew up with the story are welcome to give their thoughts for the project. Hall said she will be posting the finished project online for free so other can experience and share it. She also said she hopes to enter it in some film festivals.
“I hope that this can be the starting point for a larger series," Hall said. "There are so many great stories here in Louisiana and I’d love to get people to share some of the other amazing folk tales in the region.”