Bright Leaves

ross-mcelwee-charleen

Every month, the online movie streaming service SundanceNow features a program of documentaries curated by Thom Powers (doc programmer for TIFF and other film fests). Typically the program is based around a theme (i.e. food docs, art docs, docs with nudity, etc.), but throughout August this “Doc Club” is spotlighting filmmaker Ross McElwee, a pioneer of first-person nonfiction cinema best known for the classic Sherman’s March. That film is among the selections, along with five other features, including his latest, Photographic Memory, and two shorter early works. It’s a perfect introduction to one of my favorite filmmakers, and it’s also a special treat for those who are already McElwee fans as some of these docs haven’t been too easily seen. And both the subscription and single month deals are pretty great. McElwee is the main character of most his own films, which take viewers through autobiographical tales involving romance, death, fatherhood, Civil War history, the tobacco industry, the Berlin Wall, tragedy and the nightly news and, most famously, the South. But his movies are never entirely about himself, and much of the time he’s hidden behind the lens of the camera anyway. Many other figures in the filmmaker’s life come and go through his work, mainly family members. And then there’s Charleen Swansea, who I consider to be the true star of McElwee’s films, even if she only makes a short appearance. If there was any reason to be disappointed by last year’s Photographic Memory, it was because Swansea isn’t […]

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