Little Moments 

An interview with iconic documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee

click to enlarge Director Ross McElwee.
  • Director Ross McElwee.

Ross McElwee is a busy man.

Regarded as one of America’s greatest documentary filmmakers, McElwee just returned to his teaching job at Harvard University after touring Europe with his most recent film, “Photographic Memory.” He now has papers to grade. Several months ago, his son Adrian, who features prominently in the new film, was mugged and hurt outside of a bar in Lisbon, Portugal, but McElwee says he’s “doing fine now,” albeit with permanent platinum screws in his jaw. If you’ve seen McElwee’s earlier films, you’ve watched Adrian, now in his early 20s, since he was a newborn, and even heard his birth on camera. You may feel relieved.

Often credited with having popularized the cinéma vérité movement for average audiences, McElwee’s meditative and deeply humorous films follow autobiographical odysseys that examine the eternal politics of family, self-identity, relationships, and raising children.

He is best known for his breakthrough 1986 film, “Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.” That now classic film begins as a quest to retrace the path of General Sherman throughout the South, but ends up being a wildly entertaining personal inquiry into the filmmaker’s own relationships with women, as well as other burning philosophical questions. The Library of Congress National Film Registry chose the film for preservation as a "historically significant American motion picture.”

A native of Charlotte, N.C., McElwee is coming to Richmond as part of the James River Film Festival, and he will be showing “Photographic Memory” (2011), a story about connecting with his son and his own past, as well as his acclaimed 2003 movie, “Bright Leaves,” about the origins of big tobacco in his home state and his own family’s involvement. Style Weekly managed to snag a little of his time.

Style Weekly: For you, is there a quintessential Southern moment in your films?

Ross McElwee: My films are full of little moments that make up my pleasure being back home in the South. In “Bright Leaves,” there are a bunch -- I was there most recently in 2004 -- when it all came home to me again, literally, and in terms of emotional and intellectual responses to the terrain and the people. This land is so wonderful to travel and to film. People are so open, so accepting. They are so funny about themselves and the world. It enabled me to construct a portrait of the region that has a sense of humor about itself in a way that I often find New England does not. (Laughs). I’ve never quite been at home here for that reason. But I think the 50th and final Tobacco Parade at the end of “Bright Leaves” quintessentially sums up so much about what I love about the South--it’s funny and lighthearted.

I saw on your public Facebook page [which his son put up] there was a recent HBO meeting about a “Sherman’s March 2” that went well.

[Laughs] I’ve got to talk to him about that. That is precisely to the point of what I get to in “Photographic Memory.” One of the things I’m interrogating is the way my son’s generation lives and dies on Facebook and other social media forms, and how exasperating that can be to a parent who wants to connect in some nonmediated way with their kid. I knew he set up that fan site or page. But I don’t even know how to log in, I refuse to get on Facebook because I can’t even keep up with stuff I have to do as is . . . But that project is still nascent, it’s got a long way to go. The chance of it becoming a film, who knows? There was a director in California who wanted to make a fictional version of “Sherman’s March” and I optioned the rights for it to him if he would give me the rights to make a documentary about the making of the fiction film. It will be one of the possibilities for whatever my next film is.

Your films often jump subject tracks, and reveal themselves while you are filming. Was that a source of difficulty early on when applying for grants?

Sure, absolutely. It was huge. I couldn’t get a grant for “Sherman’s” early on. I shopped it throughout the South--arts foundations, public TV stations. I kept saying, “I’ve got this footage; I think I know where it’s going to go.” I got turned down by everybody. Eight foundations turned it down. And I don’t blame them, there was nothing like it at the time. I think of myself as a pretty good writer, but there was no way I could articulate what I thought the film could do. Finally, I got someone in Boston to give me money to process some footage I had already shot, then they could see it and make up their mind as a funder or PBS person. But it was very, very hard, And I really sympathize with anyone trying to do something out of the norm with nonfiction or fiction filmmaking. It’s just really, really tough when you’re just beginning.

Has your opinion toward digital changed as you’ve used it more?

This is also contained in my new film, kind of a meditation on that among other things. From a romanticist point of view, I lament the demise of film because it has such wonderful qualities and represents a whole era of expression. But I’m not sentimental about it. Digital technology has really democratized filmmaking in amazing ways. I’m glad I learned to shoot on film because it forced a kind of discipline on me since I wasn’t able to shoot an indefinite amount of footage. Too expensive and from a logistical point of view, you had to stop every 10 minutes to change the magazine. There was limitation. I think that’s a huge problem right now. I see it in my students and my son -- they shoot and shoot and shoot. Then they’re stuck with all this footage and get overwhelmed by how do you shape all this into anything? For me, [digital] encourages me to take a few more chances, but I think all my habits, both good and bad, were set early on.

Memory has played such an important role in great art. In this information age, when memories appear instantly and never fade, is that becoming part of our consciousness in a way that makes us increasingly devoid of the kind of serious introspection your films represent?

Again, I hesitate to speak in generalities. It certainly seems like what you describe is a possibility. I can’t believe the role of memory and experience as interpreted by memory will ever totally cease to exist as part of being a human being. Yet it is amazing how readily we now all go to Google or whatever to find information. We used to carry that around in our heads. That does become a default position; I’ve done it myself and seen it done plenty. What does that mean? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Are we more lazy or more engaged? What does it mean about libraries, research? I’m affected by these questions just like everybody else and my way of dealing with them is to make very precise films that, one shot after another, try to formulate a response to all this. That’s why I make documentary films.

What was the most valuable thing the writer John Hawkes taught you in college about finding your voice?

Well, that is what he taught me to do. I remember he gave us an assignment, my freshman year, to mimic one of your favorite writers describing an event that occurred in your own life. I chose a summer trip I’d taken to Greece with some friends. But I tried to write about it as Hemingway would. It was incredibly self-conscious, and I didn’t feel comfortable in his shoes, but that was the point. To get us to discover it wasn’t our own true voice. That was his big lesson to us.

Like many people, I fell in love with Charleen, your former high school teacher who reappears in several of your films and takes on an almost muselike quality. She’s such a memorable Southern character, so full of life. Can you talk about her role in your own life?

She’s still important to me as a friend. I talk to her all the time -- almost every week. The last two films I made she has not been in. We are getting older, though. I realize I need to get back down there and get her in my next film. We talk about it all the time. She’s not camera shy (laughs). But she’s happily married, living in Chapel Hill, surrounded by family. She’s in a good place.

I read that someone saw her at a dinner party and she said your early works were “self-indulgent” but she thought you were on the right track now.

[Laughs hard] They’re not self-indulgent if she’s in them. I’ll have to get on her about that.

In “Bright Leaves,” you don’t directly address slave labor in the build-up of these tobacco institutions -- was that just too big and too political a topic to interject?

Well, yes to both. But tobacco, at least in North Carolina, wasn’t the main way slave labor was used. … I said to myself: “I’m going to limit [the film] by staying in North Carolina.” And North Carolina didn’t have a huge history of slaves harvesting tobacco, they were involved in all kinds of other agricultural traditions, that’s not to say it’s not there. But I did get turned down by one foundation because I didn’t deal with the historical presence of slavery. It’s like, “Sorry, I can’t deal with everything in this damn film.” It takes on so many different themes already. It was all I could do to juggle three or four major themes throughout. Just to get those to balance was all I could manage.

I notice you’ve used gospel music in several films now, especially “Bright Leaves.”

I’m certainly no expert, but it just seemed to fit. It’s music I heard growing up, embedded in my consciousness and my heart. But it rose up out of the material in “Bright Leaves,” when the tobacco farmer also sings in a choir. I thought, “This is too good to be true.” So that becomes a major sound component, the singing. And “Time Indefinite” ends with “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” again because there’s reference to it in an earlier conversation. I do use music, but only if it rises up out of the terrain of the film itself. That’s the rule I set for myself. As opposed to being scored by a composer or ripped from a recording.

For me, one of the most disturbing images in your films is your close-up scene of the fish dying on the pier in “Time Indefinite.”

It’s weird, because we’ve all seen people fishing and them dying. Somehow there was something about the light and the mood and the moment, the camera angle, using wide-angle lens. It all seems to have an impact. That image has been replicated and put into books. Clearly it has a power, and that power has communicated itself in many instances. For me, its indicative of how these little seemingly insecure moments can end up packing some power if they’re framed and contextualized properly.

How has your persona on film evolved over the years?

You’ll see in “Photographic Memory,” I’m grouchier, that’s part of getting older. Humor is still important, and all the things I’ve been interested in are still there. [When writing the overdub narration later] I write the narration in the present tense, meant to evoke the person who is there filming. I don’t think I try to make a distinction between that person [as the editor] and the person holding the camera.

Has your approach to interviewing changed, in the wake of your films becoming more popular, and people being more aware of them?

People were startled when “Sherman’s March” was seen and talked about. I was too. It wasn’t a total surprise, but I didn’t expect it to be as widely accepted and discussed. It doesn’t change too much how I film the people I know. But the whole terrain has changed quite a bit since Internet has come in -- everyone has a camera and anybody can be filmed, put on YouTube, get a million hits in three days. Now people are reasonably cautious, they want to know what an image is being gathered for. ... I think that’s quite a change from when I began making films. It has made it harder for younger documentary filmmakers to go into world and film people they don’t know prior. Because everybody is either distrustful or wants to be paid. Usually one or the other.

With so many political docs out there today, yours are refreshing because they aren’t overtly about the political issues of the moment.

It’s not so much that I endeavor to banish politics from my films for any reason. I do exactly what you say: I try to contextualize politics in terms of family and relationships. But I think it’s important to look at the wider world -- in “Bright Leaves,” the whole question of big tobacco and all of that. So the film goes back and forth between a consideration of my own life, my family and ancestors and these bigger issues. “Six O’Clock News” has the whole contemplation of the media coming into our lives. “Sherman’s March” had a very serious side theme of thermo-nuclear destruction, which amazingly has not gone away, it comes in a different package now, with terrorism possibly, but it’s the same old fissionable materials, they’re still with us. I’ve tried to let the political world in to that extent and highly personalize those issues so they integrate more footage than I’m shooting. And I hope I continue to do that. But the most recent film doesn’t really have any political issues, its very, very personal -- so we’ll see how people respond. I suspect I’ll be criticized for that.

Ross McElwee will present “Photographic Memory” on April 15 from 6 to 8 :30 p.m. at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts with a question session afterwards. The director will also present “Bright Leaves,” on April 16 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Grace Street Theater. Tickets are $5 for both events. For information, visit jamesriverfilm.org.

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