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Burning Down the South

Ross McElwee's documentary Bright Leaves opens at Malco's Ridgeway.



In his groundbreaking documentary Sherman's March, filmmaker Ross McElwee stumbles into his parents' house half-drunk after attending a costume party. He's dressed like a Civil War general. His parents think he's wasting his life trying to be an artist, and he doesn't want to wake them. So he sits and whispers into the camera a long, sympathetic monologue about General William T. Sherman.

In 1986, it was unusual for a documentary filmmaker to put himself in front of the camera. It was even more unusual for a documentary to shift its focus between its stated subject and the personal obsessions of the filmmaker. But McElwee did both, and the result was hilarious, heartbreaking, and, yes, even educational.

McElwee's latest film, Bright Leaves, opens at the Malco Ridgeway this weekend. It takes an uncharacteristic look at tobacco farmers in North Carolina filtered, as always, through the filmmaker's obsession du jour.

Flyer: If I went to pick up one of your films at the video store I'd go to the documentary section. But your films frequently are referred to as "subjective meditations." What do you call your films?

Ross McElwee: That phrase [subjective meditation] seems appropriate, but I'm afraid that it also might put a viewer to sleep. I've tried to make documentaries that are closer to essay writing and literature. Bright Leaves is an exploration. It's a journey across geographical, psychological, and emotional landscapes. Maybe I should call it an action-packed documentary.

You put yourself in these films as a sort of genial, somewhat confused tour guide. You show us around like a native, but at the same time you're trying to figure out exactly what it is you're showing us.

I try to lure people into a film and then periodically abandon them. [In the case of Bright Leaves], it begins with a personal introduction about my cousin in North Carolina who's discovered an old Hollywood melodrama [also called Bright Leaves] that he thinks is based on the life of my great-great grandfather [who first marketed the tobacco brand Bull Durham]. And then I step aside and let the film be about tobacco for a while, and I let the viewers decide how they feel about tobacco. The film also becomes a meditation on what it means to make home movies, documentaries, and Hollywood films.

Would you say that Bright Leaves is a film about denial?

Denial is a major theme, although I was determined not to make an anti-tobacco film or a film that says tobacco is BAD. One tobacco grower told me point-blank that tobacco has never hurt anybody. His mother had just died of lung cancer. So, yes, denial is one component. But I'm a former smoker, and at one point in the film I do acknowledge all of the social pleasures of smoking. Smoking is bad in general, but it's not as bad for everyone as it seems. One guy [in the film] smoked four packs a day into his 90s.

A doctor once prescribed menthol cigarettes for my grandmother's sore throat.

That sort of thing used to happen more than you might think. There was a time when doctors used to prescribe cigarettes to ease discomfort in pregnant women.

But this film's not so much about tobacco as it is about the families who raise tobacco and their relationship to the region.

Generally speaking, it's not large businesses that control the growth of tobacco in North Carolina. It's not the big corporate farms like you see in the Midwest. It's small family farms of five or 10 acres. When you look at tobacco in terms of these families, it makes it harder to pass judgment. And there's also a paradox in the way the state and federal governments treat tobacco. Every pack of cigarettes has a warning label on it. And anti-smoking ads are produced with money from legal settlements [against tobacco companies]. But the federal government also hands out "allotments" which make it possible to grow tobacco in the first place.

Attitudes toward tobacco and smoking are changing. How will this change the lives of the tobacco growers?

At the end of the film I go to the 50th and final Tobacco Day Parade in a small town in the eastern part of the state. After half a century, they have decided to start calling it the Farmer's Day Parade. Even the farmers in these towns are beginning to acknowledge that tobacco has image problems.

Again, obviously, you've returned to your native South, and to some degree your family, for subject matter. But how does Bright Leaves fit in with the rest of your films?

The film does depict smoking and cancer and death, but it's also very funny. It focuses on all of these somber issues, but it manages to find humor, even hilarity.

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