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Bright Leaves (2003)

Director: Ross McElwee, Ross McElwee
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Studio: First Run Features
Genre: Documentary, Biographies
Running Time: 105 min.
Languages: English
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Film diarist Ross McElwee (Sherman's March) offers another personal examination of Southern history and life with Bright Leaves, a documentary tracing his own connection to North Carolina and its tobacco industry. McElwee is drawn to the subject after meeting his second cousin John, a film memorabilia collector, who shows McElwee an old Warner Bros. film from 1950, Bright Leaf, in which Gary Cooper stars (alongside Patricia Neal and Lauren Bacall) as a tobacco magnate who builds himself up from nothing only to lose everything to a rich, powerful, and ruthless Southern gentleman. The film reminds McElwee of the stories his father used to tell about his great grandfather, who built up a fortune in the tobacco business, but spent years, and tens of thousands of dollars, suing the Duke family (the most powerful tobacco growers in American history, and founders of Duke University) for stealing his famous "Durham Bull" brand. The battle ruined him and left the family bankrupt. McElwee decides to investigate the origins of the film, which leads him to explore his own connection to the tobacco industry. Even though his family is no longer in the business, McElwee feels guilty about his family's "contribution to global tobacco addiction." McElwee interviews cancer patients, including former patients of his late father, a surgeon. He also interviews several friends who smoke or who have ties to the tobacco industry. In focusing on Bright Leaf, he finds himself interviewing film historian Vlada Petric and actress Neal. All of this is intertwined with a very personal family history involving his relationship with his father, his son, and the whole issue of smoking. ~ Josh Ralske, All Movie Guide

Nearly twenty years ago, Sherman's March became one of the most unusual art-house hits in movie history. Now Bright Leaves is winning accolades and new audiences for documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee. In a GreenCine exclusive, McElwee talks about his mentors and his uniquely engaging form of first-person narrative. Full article >>

GreenCine Member Reviews

No Smoking (a suggestion, not a command) by talltale July 7, 2005 - 12:16 PM PDT
3 out of 4 members found this review helpful
A few minutes into BRIGHT LEAVES--Ross McElwee's meditation on tobacco, his family heritage, life, fathers & sons and a couple dozen other subjects--I thought, "I won't make it through this." What with McElwee's barely inflected voice doing all the narration, and his penchant for filming anything and everything that appears connected to his subjects (together with my own pressing work deadlines and family obligations), I was sure I wouldn't be able to concentrate. But no. Twenty minutes into it, I was hooked. Took me a couple of days to finish the movie but I'm glad I did.

McElwee, who does just about everything here (films, edits, produces) has a quiet style that gets under your skin. And his movie--which takes its title from "Bright Leaf," the old Gary Cooper tobacco melodrama--makes fascinating connections with that film, and with smoking, death, religion, and more. It appears that the Cooper character was based on this moviemaker's ancestor, so McElwee starts tracking and receives a few surprises. Along the way he connects with a young relative and his fiancee about to marry (and quit smoking), a film scholar/theorist named Vlada Petric (who provides some of the funniest scenes), and lots of other interesting characters.

Overall, though, this is a piece of anti-smoking filmmaking that is as reasoned, quiet and convincing as anything I've seen. If your taste runs to mainstream comedy or action, I may be wasting my breath (or my typing fingers); if you enjoy listening, watching, thinking and connecting the dots, try this one.

Don't be scared - not a "tobacco is evil" documentary. by leeloo67 June 21, 2005 - 4:56 PM PDT
3 out of 5 members found this review helpful
This documentary is a very clever personal story about one man's link to tobacco, and a slant on how the link could have been much stronger. The entire picture has a deliberate pacing - very even keeled - with real, unplanned humor and a refreshing story. Also doubles as a sort of informal "how to make a documentary".

GreenCine Member Rating

(Average 6.76)
29 Votes
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Cannes Film Festival & More - 2003
Official Selection, Certain Regards... and more. Here is a bit more information on the films screened at the Cannes. I have attempted to list all the films that were considered for an award as well as any special screenings.
something like documentary
personal, experimental, and beautiful films that (i think) smartly challenge the conventions of documentary

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