By Sean Axmaker
First person documentarian Ross McElwee is not one to hide behind his camera. He tends to turn his lens on issues and people close to home, and even when he doesn't, they have a way of taking over. Case in point: Sherman's March. Ostensibly a historical documentary about the General William Tecumseh Sherman, the Civil War General who burned his way through Georgia as he marched on Atlanta, it becomes a meditation on nuclear war and McElwee's own love life. The camera becomes the intermediary between him and a series of eligible single women. That personal approach is just as strong in his latest documentary Bright Leaves, a film about the tobacco industry, smoking culture, and the lost McElwee tobacco legacy: his ancestor created the Bull Durham brand before he was bankrupted by a rival (that tale is fictionalized in the Hollywood film Bright Leaf , albeit from a substantially different perspective). In between, McElwee muses on his relationship with his growing son.
Ross McElwee was the unofficial guest of honor at the First Person Festival, which marked the unofficial opening of the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle in 2004. Soft spoken and thoughtful, McElwee was a low key host who praised the Seattle audiences in general and the Film Forum in particular, entertaining his audiences before screenings of his films (and at one point during protracted technical difficulties) and smiling through his answers during the Q&A sessions afterwards. Between those sessions, he made time for an extended interview with me over some fine Northwest wine to discuss his career, his family, and why he makes movies the way he does.
Sean Axmaker: To be overly general, the documentary tradition is about making a case to an audience, persuading them to an idea. Your documentaries are more concerned with the process of investigation and asking questions, and in getting the audience to confront the questions themselves.
Ross McElwee: Just what they don't need, more questions. That's what I give them. [laughs] No, it's true. In no way do I attempt to propose what the solutions are to the various social issues that weave themselves through my films. I certainly didn't have any answers for nuclear weapons proliferation in Sherman's March and I didn't have any answers for violence in the media in Six O'Clock News, nor do I have any solutions for the deleterious effects of cigarettes posed in Bright Leaves. And yet, those themes all exist in those three movies, respectively.
When you really look carefully at documentary filmmaking, even filmmakers like Michael Moore don't actually propose answers; they just target the questions and then really make them salient. What your hope is, and I don't feel comfortable speaking for documentary filmmakers as a whole, but at least some of us hope that by raising some issues, other people will find the answers. Answers can't really be incorporated into these films as far as I know. I mean, in Harlan County, USA, for instance, I think it was clear that Barbara Kopple felt that the unions needed to be given what they were requesting from management and that would have solved the problem. So maybe that's an example of a film that actually did point directly to what the answer was, but I think that's more the exception than the rule in documentary filmmaking.
SA: You studied under Richard Leacock.
RM: Yes, at MIT.
SA: He was a significant force in cinéma vérité filmmaking, as a filmmaker and also as a cinematographer for the Maysles brothers and other people.
RM: And for Robert Flaherty. The direct line from Flaherty to the cinéma vérité revolution in the 60s was Ricky Leacock. Ricky was the cameraman on Louisana Story, which was one of Flaherty's last films.
SA: How did Leacock influence you as a filmmaker when you started to make films?
RM: I smiled when you said Ricky taught us. I think he taught by non-teaching. He was a very informal presence at MIT, to the point where he was often absent. But his absence represented something. He felt the most important thing to do was make films directly from your heart, from your passion, whatever that passion might be, and to not worry about targeting an audience or whether a film was acceptable by some kind of prevailing standards, i.e., the PBS definition of what a documentary should be. All his life, he fought against the expectations of what non-fiction film had to do in order to be justified. The series of cinéma vérité films that he produced for PBS called Living Camera, which I guess was the first television series that produced these kinds of documentaries back in the 60s, never showed one of his most famous films, A Happy Mother's Day, because it just didn't fall within their definition of what a documentary should be: it wasn't informative enough, it didn't have enough data.
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