During the Italian Renaissance, schools of painting came to be identified with
particular cities. In recent decades something similar has been occurring in
North America, where "schools" of independent film-making have become
identified with specific places. San Francisco, for example, has been a center
for surreal forms of avant-garde cinema. For a time, New York (and
subsequently Buffalo/Toronto) was identified with what had come to be called
"structural film-making." Perhaps the most persistent school of independent
cinema, however, has for three decades found a home in Boston: cinema
verite . Many of the leading verite film-makers--Ricky Leacock,
the Maysles Brothers, Frederick Wiseman, Ed Pincus--have had and continue to
have crucial ties with Boston. Over the years, the cinema verite
procedure (a hand-carried 16mm rig, hand carried tape-recording equipment for
sync sound, a one- or two-person crew)has been articulated in a variety of
forms within a continually developing history. For a time, the assumption of a
number of the prime movers of cinema verite was that the value of the
procedure was precisely its ability to capture events without the intrusion of
the film-maker: the film-maker's persona, either in a visual embodiment or in
narration, was to be avoided at all costs.
By the 1970s, however, a reaction to this position was occurring: men and
women (Ed Pincus, Martha Coolidge, Amilie Rothschild, Alfred Guzzetti, others)
were carrying 16mm cameras and tape recorders into their domestic environments
to see what they could discover. Even within this more personalized kind of
cinema verite , a good bit of articulation has been possible. One of
the most interesting recent developments has occurred in a series of films by
Ross McElwee, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, who studied filmmaking at
MIT with Leacock and Pincus, and has taught at Harvard. Since arriving at MIT
McElwee has completed five films: Charleen (1978), an extended portrait
of Charleen Swansea, a friend and ex-teacher whose home became a haven for
young painters, writers, and musicians--"a place like no other in the South I'd
ever seen"; Space Coast (1978, co-made with Michel Negroponte), a
portrait of three residents of Cape Canaveral, Florida: Mary Bubb, a local
newspaper reporter who had witnessed 1600 consecutive launches, "Papa" John
Murphy, an ex-maintenance man turned motorcycle gang guru, and Willy Womak,
small-time construction company owner and clown-host for a local kids show (Jim
Hoberman called Space Coast a "neorealist gong show"): Resident
Exile (1981, also co-made with Negroponte), a portrait of an Iranian
exile, tortured under the Shah's regime, living in the U.S. during the hostage
crisis; Backyard (1982), McElwee's portrait of his home in Charlotte;
and Sherman's March : A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic
Love in the South during an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation (1985), a
record of McElwee's travels in the South, and the women he meets along the
route General Sherman took during the Civil War. (See review in FQ ,
In Backyard , McElwee's presence within the situations he records is,
for the most part, similar to our sense of the film-maker's presence in many
earlier domestic cinema verite films: the world recorded simply
surrounds the film-maker and camera, and it's obvious that the people filmed
are very aware of the camera's intrusion into their lives. But in some
instances McElwee goes further: he introduces himself as a character within
the imagery; we see him as we hear him comment about himself and his life. And
just as important, he sometimes takes conversational actions which revise his
relationships with people he's talking with as he is filming .
In other words, the camera is not simply recording McElwee's domestic life, it
is witnessing changes in his life made possible, in part, by the camera's
In Sherman's March this more complex presence has become the central
catalyst for the film. We get to know McElwee's (or McElwee's filmic
persona's) hopes, concerns, nightmares; and we are behind the camera with
McElwee as he uses the film-making process to forge new relationships and to
revise previously important relationships. As is true in many literary
first-person narratives, McElwee's approach in Sherman's March is
simultaneously very revealing and somewhat mysterious: the candidness of the
scenes is frequently startling, but the more the film--and
McElwee-as-narrator--reveals, the more we realize that there are many aspects
of the relationships he is recording that we are not privy to. We cannot help
but wonder about the narrator as we experience things with him.
McElwee's films are also interesting as portraits of the contemporary South.
Charleen, Backyard, and Sherman's March expose the
complexity of Southern race relations from the inside, with subtlety, a
directness, and a humanity we rarely see in film or anywhere else. The
oppression of black people is often obvious in the films, but so is the
diversity of experiences blacks and white share in this part of the nation
where the races have lived longer and more intimately together than anywhere
else on this continent.
McElwee and I talked on February 14, 1987 and subsequently fleshed out the
interview by exchanging tapes.
Could you talk about your educational background and about how you got into
When I was in high school and then in college as an undergraduate,
creative writing was what I wanted to do. For a couple of semesters I worked
with novelist John Hawkes who teaches at Brown. Then during my last year in
college I took still photography courses at the Rhode Island School of Design.
I met students there who were making a film, and watched them work on the
moviola. That got me thinking about the process of putting a film together. I
went to student screenings at RISD, and I guess that's when I first thought
about film-making as something an ordinary mortal could do. Also when I was
in college, I saw Primary , Richard Leacock's film about the 1960
Humphrey-Kennedy race in Minnesota, and Wiseman's Titicut Follies ,
about the insane asylum in Massachusetts. Those films stuck with me. They
represented a very different approach to film-making. There was something
gritty and startling about their attempts to capture real life. Also, the
notion that there wasn't a large film crew, just two or three individuals out
exploring the world and filming it, appealed to me in some vague sense. But I
didn't really act on these feelings until close to two years later.
I saw Touch of Evil for the first time in Paris when I was 22 or 23, at
the Cinematheque Francaise, and was dazzled by the opening shot where the
camera tracks across the Mexican border. I suddenly had a kind of satori about
the energy and magic of film-making. Later, I realized that by being a
documentary film-maker, I could satisfy my curiosity about the real world
and I could indulge in that magical experience of presenting a film to
that dark room full of people. I came back to North Carolina after having seen
the Orson Welles film. It took awhile, but I got a summer job as a television
cameraman at a station in Charlotte.
I quit that job after about a year and went to Stanford's summer film institute
for three weeks of intensive film-making. I made a couple of short Super-8
films and a 16mm film there and then, through a producer friend, got a job as
an assistant cameraman for Bill Moyer's Journal, on PBS. Basically all
I did was load magazines for the cameraman. The shows weren't very exciting
filmically (the Moyers series used a formula that centered on interviews and
was heavily narrated), but I learned things and made a living for a year.
After that I applied to MIT's Film Section. MIT didn't have an official
graduate program at the time--the primary thing was that Richard Leacock was
there, and so was Ed Pincus. Here were these two film-makers, both doing
unscripted, non commercial documentaries, films that weren't intended to fit
into the Industry in a particular way. It appealed to me a lot. I ended up in
the graduate program the following September.
Students were pretty much on their own. Leacock and Pincus were available, but
the curriculum was pretty unstructured. We had access to lightweight portable
16mm rigs. They'd give us these rigs for a month at a time and say, "Get lost.
Come back when you've got a film." That was terrific. Apparently it isn't
that easy at all schools to have access to equipment for extended periods.
For this kind of film-making you need to be able to shoot for weeks at a time
in order to garner the kind of footage that can be shaped into a movie. By the
end of two years I'd shot Charleen , which was my first real film.
I'd also shot footage for Backyard (which wasn't completed until a good
bit later) and for Space Coast, which was finished after I officially
left MIT. I was paranoid about not having access to camera equipment--not
being able to afford it--once I left MIT, so I tried to stockpile footage for
as many films as I could --thinking that somehow I could always wangle access
to editing tables later.
Like several of your later films, Charleen seems, in part, a
portrait of the South. Is that what you had in mind?
I had originally thought that the film might be even more a portrait of the
South, or at least of Charlotte, North Carolina, with Charleen as a witty tour
guide. I wasn't at all sure that the film would be an intimate portrait of
Charleen herself, though I hoped this would be the case. As it turned out,
Charleen enjoyed being filmed and was a natural performer, in the sense that
even though it was simply her own life that she was performing, she always
performed it with a certain elan that was very "filmable." She enjoyed
revealing her life to me and the camera. As a result, much of the Southern
detail simply got eclipsed by Charleen herself.
Still, as you suggest, there is a latent portrait of the South in the
film--maybe more a sketch than a portrait. I think the way interactions
between blacks and whites are captured is interesting, with Charleen usually
being the catalyst for such interaction. She repeatedly confronts whites with
their own racism, and blacks with their sense of separateness from whites.
She's always trying to break down the barriers between blacks and whites, but
never politically. It's always done for art's sake, for poetry's sake, and out
of an intense enthusiasm and love for her fellow human beings. And
fortunately, it's nearly always done with a great sense of humor and verve,
which prevents her passions from being self-righteously political or
moralistic. She draws people out and confronts them with their own racial
insecurities--and in the South, those insecurities are rampant for both blacks
By the time you made Charleen, there was already a group of films
made in the early to mid 1970s by Amalie Rothschild (Nana, Mom and
Me), Martha Coolidge (David: Off and On), and others, in which the
film-makers took their cameras into their domestic environments. Had you seen
I saw Nana, Mom and Me after I left MIT, but there were
other films that were much more important influences. Jeff Kreines and Joel
DeMott had spent time at MIT and their films were definitely influential for
me. And Pincus's later films, especially Life and Other Anxieties and
Diaries, which was a five-year portrait of his marriage.
Actually Diaries is in some ways the closest thing I know to
I'm sure I was influenced by it in all kinds of ways.
Space Coast is much more detached than Charleen since you don't
know the people except while you're filming them. But the most interesting
scene in it for me is when the young daughter (who looks much too young
to ever have had a baby, anyway) is in the phone booth calling to try to get
welfare. She suddenly says something to you...
She asks me, "Have they hung up on me?" And I take the phone and listen
at that point.
That moment is something special. But during much of the film I'm a little
uneasy about the film's stance. There's a fine line between looking into the
lives of these weird people, and laughing at them.
Yes, that's the danger of this kind of filmmaking.
John Marshall's N!ai, Portrait of a !Kung Woman, was made during the
same period. How did you come to work on that remarkable film?
There was the basic necessity to make a living. During those years
(1977-1980) I didn't have any steady source of income, so I continued to take
jobs as a freelance cameraman. I preferred opportunities where I could work
with the film-makers I respected, such as John Marshall or D.A. Pennebaker.
I'd never met John, but I'd seen his work and respected it. He had been
filming a !Kung settlement for a month in Namibia and though his cameraman was
scheduled to leave, John felt that he did not have his film yet. I was
recommended by Mark Erder, the original cinematographer, who was also from
Boston. They cabled me, and I said I'd do it.
It was a complicated situation. John has a distinctive style, and I think at
first he was nervous about having me shoot. He didn't know me at all; he'd
never seen any of my work. Could he edit my camerawork with his and Mark's?
Also, Namibia was his world, and I was coming into it cold. But it all worked
out. I could tell you a hundred stories about the experience.
Tell me one.
Well, the day I arrived (after an exhausting 16-hour flight through Frankfurt
and then south to Namibia, where we finally landed on a stretch of dirt in the
middle of the Kalahari Desert), John said, "Well, let's not shoot today. Let's
just show you the layout." We started walking around, and suddenly we heard a
commotion. A fight had broken out between one of the !Kung men and an Ovamba
worker that John had brought with him to be a cook for the camp. They were
accusing the cook of having an affair with this guy's wife. There had been
tension between !Kung people and the Ovambas to begin with, so this was a
volatile situation. The argument exploded to include every member of the
village; people were screaming and yelling and chanting and crying. We simply
had to film it, and I didn't even know who John felt the principal people were
at this point. John said,"Just shoot, shoot whatever is happening."
The !Kung are very short people, and I had this odd sense of not being there,
of being invisible. An angry !Kung rushed in my direction bandying a large
stick, seemingly at me, but actually in pursuit of another !Kung who happened
to be next to me. But my presence was never acknowledged. I saw a grass hut
shaking wildly, and I held the shot of it, and pretty soon the allegedly
cuckolded husband's head breaks through a wall, like a chicken emerging from an
egg. He was being restrained by two people on each arm--relatives who were
trying to keep him from murdering the Ovamba cook. Meanwhile, his wife was
being slapped by her mother. And it was all based on nothing but rumor.
Nobody was seriously hurt. We filmed for something like seven straight
hours--all stages of the argument, its dissipation, and the lamenting that
followed it...it was an amazing experience. Some of that footage was used in
N!ai, but edited down.
Were you there when The Gods Must Be Crazy was being filmed?
No. That was done before I arrived. It was wonderfully ironic that those two
films were being made in the same place and the same time. They should be
shown side by side. The Gods Must Be Crazy had its charming moments,
but it was silly and condescending about the !Kung.
Backyard is your first full-fledged portrait of the South. It centers on
two themes: one is the relationship of the two races; the other is your
relationship with your father and brother.
How Backyard was conceived might be of interest to you. It
started out as two separate films: a portrait of Clyde, the beekeeper; and a
study of my brother's last summer at home before going away to medical school.
I was thinking on doing a film about the difficulty of getting through four
years of medical school. I felt pretty confident that my brother would return
to North Carolina and practice with my father, which he eventually did, so
there would be a kind of closure to a story filmed over five of six years.
What happened was that the two separate films kept pulling toward each other
like magnets, and I found I couldn't separate them. There was this
interwovenness between the lives of Clyde and the other black people who worked
around our house and my father and my brother; and it seemed artificial to try
to pry the two stories apart. Finally I realized I had to made a film that
incorporated both elements. When you're making unscripted documentaries, your
preconceptions about the film you're going to make usually start out very
different from the film you end up making. Then, given that I didn't have much
film stock, I decided to give the film a restricted area in which to work: to
let it literally be confined to my backyard, with a couple of departures to
other places in the area.
The panorama of relationships between black and white people is interesting.
There's the scene where your brother walks into the kitchen and kisses Lucille,
the cook, in such a natural, automatic, unconscious way that I'll bet many
Yankees fall out of their chairs. Then there's a scene where the new bride
surveys the people and says good-bye to them before she leaves on her
honeymoon: she seems totally oblivious to this black guy who, on his part, is
totally involved in an almost fawningly sentimental way with her leaving. In
their juxtaposition these scenes capture the surreality of the social life of
the South. Also there's that scene where you visit Lucille's brother (who's
had a tracheotomy) in the hospital room. His total discomfort with you
presence is obvious.
Yes, he makes a gesture, a sideways move of the hand that's right on the
border between being a wave, a perfectly innocent good-bye and a somewhat
hostile shooing me away. This man is very depressed, and a lot of the reason
he's depressed is because he's oppressed. For whatever reason (I don't know
the specifics of his history), his alcoholism, growing up black in the South,
never having had anything of material value, starving himself--that's what
Lucille said; he's suffering from malnutrition--that gesture is very important:
it's emblematic of an anger that blacks in the South want to express, but can't
really because of the mutual interdependency between blacks and whites, and
because of an odd sense of family. And I don't mean "family" in a sentimental
way: it's not a good situation. Lucille's brother won't get angry and say,
"Get the hell out of here," but at the same time he's not going to smile at
me. There are plenty of angry blacks in the South now, but you still find his
kind of acquiescence, and it makes me feel terrible. Certainly there's the
implication in that scene of the cameraman as one more white exploiter of the
black class. I am victimizing the helpless, using them as fodder for my film.
If I'd cut the shot before the gesture, I would have cleaned the scene up as
far as implicating myself in this idea of white domination of blacks. But then
it would have been dishonest. Godard's comment about every cut being political
is very true. So much depends upon where you actually chose to edit a shot.
The interactions between you and the black workers at the country club are
loaded. Your talk with the guy you see at the flagpole in front of the
Tara-looking country club building encapsulates a lot of Southern history, as
does the moment where you film the black guys in the kitchen.
I read some hostility in those black kids. They're 17 or 18 years old,
washing dishes for the white folks, and they're really banging those dishes
around. And then the chef comes in and cocks his head, and asks me if I'm
"filming all the dirt here?" It's one of those amazing little moments. It's
fascinating that the black guy who has been sent out to lower the flag walks
the entire distance and begins undoing the rope before he looks up and notices
the flag isn't there. For me there's a lot of meaning in the downward gaze.
Somehow he's learned not to look up very often. That's very sad. And then he
walks back to the side door of the building, crossing paths with the country
club member in the white dinner jacket who goes in the front door...pure
serendipity. It's the magic of these kinds of films that now and then, with a
little patience, you get a very complicated scene, shot very simply, that
unfolds like a flower right in front of you.
Your relationship with your father seems very problematic for you. Your
father and brother seem very close because your brother is going into medicine
and hopes to go into practice with your father. Your mother is no longer alive
and you seem to feel left out, maybe a little bitter.
It's complex. I myself would not describe my mood as bitterness, but I
can see how other people could say that. In fact, I was not unhappy with my
station outside the closest family orbital ring. Orbiting is important, and I
want a connection to family, but in that film I was exploiting the humor and
poignancy of being just one step removed from the family as a result of
choosing a lifestyle that my family couldn't relate to.
That opening passage where you talk about the various professions you were
thinking about going into is very funny. Clearly, all the professions you list
were chosen to infuriate your father's sense of what a good Southern boy ought
to do. At the same time, your tone reflects your own awareness of and
detachment from your earlier adolescent reaction.
It seemed impossible to make that film without making myself a
Another thing that comes across in Backyard is a portrait of a certain sort
of Southern Scottish Presbyterian life. You, your father, and your brother
reveal an apparent inability, or a refusal, to really talk with each other
about what's happening in your lives. There's a strange conversation with your
brother at the end, when you ask him what he knows about your mother's death.
It's a moment that prefigures Sherman's March, in that you seem to be
using the camera to forge a new kind of relationship with your brother.
That's an interesting observation.
Though he slams the door shut on the attempt.
Well, he slams it shut, but not without revealing a startling fact:
that my brother, with all of his medical background and his closeness to my
father, doesn't know any of the details about my mother's death. He too has
never talked to my father. There's some sort of strange Scottish Presbyterian
existentialism operative here: why talk about the details of the death of
someone one loves; who care what the details are, we all understand the sorrow
and the absence. Also, a certain kind of politeness about not discussing
unpleasant things is very Southern. I think it's partly the Scottish highlands
heritage of a certain restraint in living, a feeling that men should not
Would it be fair to say that be because of this noncommunicativeness, your
family can live within this complicated society and its racial inequities
without thinking much about it?
The fact that they don't talk about it doesn't mean they don't think
about it, or act upon it. I'm told that when my father set up his practice in
Charlotte, after finishing medical school and his residency in New York City,
he was the first doctor in the city to have a desegregated waiting room. There
was no fanfare, no newspaper story. (I was not told this by him but by other
people.) It seemed absurd to him that black people had to sit in one room and
whites in another when he was going to be operating on all of them sooner or
later. He's quietly done things like that all his life. I saw then throughout
my childhood. Anyway, the fact that people don't talk about racism doesn't
mean they don't have strong feelings and act to eliminate it. We tend to
analyze things to death up here--especially in Cambridge, which must be the
self-analysis capital of the eastern half of the United States. Sherman's
March explores the paralysis that occurs when people are talking about
their emotions rather than acting on them. That's a phenomenon we're saddled
with in the Northeast.
Your particular presence as a narratorial persona in Sherman's March
makes that film different from Backyard. I assume all the narratorial
stuff in Backyard was recorded after the original footage.
Yes. Painstakingly, with many, many revisions. The true chronology of
when my films where finished is Charleen, Space Coast, Resident
Exile, Backyard, and Sherman's March. But that's not the order in
which they were shot. Backyard sat on the shelf for years and then was
edited relatively recently. Backyard was a sketch for Sherman's
March , an experiment in how I could approach the bigger film.
Sherman's March is often formally beautiful, which is part of what makes it
sustainable for 21/2 hours. Backyard is....
Cruder. Part of the problem with Backyard was that I was just learning
to shoot as a one person crew. I was just getting over that odd sense of
camera shyness in reverse. It takes awhile to summon the gumption to shoot
people you know well, to be able to face them and talk to them as you're
filming. Also, I was using a Nagra 4, a very large tape recorder: it weighs
20 pounds and I carried it slung over my shoulder. For Sherman's March
I used a miniature Nagra SN, a very highly developed piece of recording
equipment that could fit on my belt. This technological improvement made
shooting much easier.
In Wiseman's films you can always see that everybody is conscious of the
camera, but not so much of him personally. They're motivated to act for the
apparatus of the camera, whereas in Sherman's March and
Backyard you know the people and have fairly complex relationships with
them: the camera is more a part of you, rather than you a part of the camera.
Your subjects may respond to the camera being there, but they're primarily
interacting to you having the camera pointed at them. The interaction is more
complicated. Or complicated in a different way.
In objective detached "classical" cinema verite, you may have
very strong emotional feelings about what you're shooting, but basically the
world plays itself out in front of you without any of your feelings being
directly represented in what you're shooting. You're detached, separated.
This enables you to develop levels of complexity within a single frame,
foreground/background relationships for instance. In Space Coast
there's a shot of Papa John sitting in a chair rambling on about how he can't
get a job, while in the background you can see his wife struggling to load the
refrigerator with groceries; all kinds of interesting ironies and complexities
are set up in that shot. When you start taking on part of the burden of the
narrative and the interactions yourself, you can lose one level or dimension of
this kind of complexity. The interaction begins to be simpler, more
perpendicular to the camera. The complexities and interactions that once
existed between people in front of you now exist between the person in front of
you and yourself. Often, you're giving up the observed detail that reflects
the depth and multi-leveled complexities of the world, both visually and
sociologically. What you're getting instead is a self-reflective complexity,
one that turns back on itself. Occasionally in Sherman's March,
however, there are moments when I was able to step back and observe what was
going on. The scene with the survivalists is an instance of that. They're not
really part of my world, so I can step back and film them objectively.
Ideally, I want my films to phase in and out of these two kinds of
I assume your use of Ricky Leacock to narrate the opening passage of
Sherman's March is an homage to him.
Yes, but it's an ironic homage because he pioneered a kind of
film-making in which narration, didactic narration at any rate, was to be
avoided at all costs. At the time, that was a break with the convention that
had been established by Humphrey Jennings and other British documentary
film-makers during World War II and to some degree by Robert Flaherty, for
whom Ricky was a cameraman: Flaherty's films were narrated with title cards.
When I was at MIT, Ricky was always irreverent, always encouraging us to do
films for ourselves, to do films that were not conceived of as commercial
entities. This is not what you hear in a lot of film schools, where you're
encouraged to produce films that will get you jobs in media institutions like
public television, or in commercial television or Hollywood. Ricky was always
very caustic and irreverent about those reasons for making films. I was really
happy that he was willing to do the introduction. Ricky likes the film a lot.
He's been very supportive. At on point, when my camera stopped functioning
somewhere in Georgia, he airshipped me his.
When you were moving through Sherman's March , filming people, what
did you set up in advance? What did you tell people about what you would do?
Did you just walk in on them?
Pretty much I always walked in on them. Obviously, I'd steer the
conversation in a certain way, and indeed that's what human dialogue is anyway,
so why not let it be part of the film? I guess what my conversations have that
conventional interviews don't is a serendipitous quality, an emotional charge
that has something to do with the personal connection between the subject and
the film-maker. I never came with a list of questions.
Did you call ahead and prepare people?
Well, in the case of Karen, the lawyer, the last portrait in the film, I said,
"Can I come and spend some time with you? I have my camera and I'll probably
do some shooting. I'm making this film about women in the South and about my
journey along Sherman's route." And she said, "Sure, come." In one sense
she's startled when I walk in the door shooting; she hadn't quite expected
that, but in general she's prepared. That scene on the porch when I'm asking
her, "Where have you been for the last year? Why didn't you ever write?" is
exactly as it happened. We didn't talk about it beforehand. In fact, if I had
called ahead and told her I'd ask her certain things, she'd have inevitably
tried to preconceive what she was going to say, or would have said, "Well, I
don't think I'm going to want to do this." It's just easier to go ahead and
What was the balance between how much you shot and didn't shoot when you
were with people?
I think a more accurate way to think about this is that I was almost
always ready to shoot. I kept the camera within reaching distance, sometimes
balanced on my shoulder. Maybe Sherman's March took five months of
shooting. I never figured it out exactly. But even between major portraits,
when I was on the road, I was totally open to filming whatever might happen in
a gas station or in a restaurant, or wherever. So in one sense you can count
all that time at "filming time."
I'd guess the total amount of footage I actually shot was about 25 hours. I
don't remember exactly. In the finished film I ended up with 21/2 hours of
that--a 10 or 11 to 1 filming ratio. But that other ratio, between five months
and 21/2 hours--that's astronomical.
I spent five or six days with Charleen [Swansea]. That was probably the
shortest period overall that I spent with anybody. She's so intense, things
happen so quickly with her, that I didn't need to be there long. Of course,
there were also times when I'd go with her prepared to film, and film nothing
because it wasn't interesting enough. I'd just relax and enjoy myself if I
Sherman's March is another portrait of the South, and like other films, it
includes interesting moments of interrelationship between whites and blacks.
Your conversation with the fellow whose daughter has died is especially
It's an amazing moment. It happened totally unpredictably. I was there
because the car with its mechanical woes was becoming a theme I thought I might
be able to develop. It's pretty much a single unedited shot that takes you
from a discussion of the car to his son to his daughter's death to my mother's
death. To me, that's preferable to piecing together five different shots to
create the same impression. This way you can see the emotional shift in his
eyes, hear it in our voices, as we move from discussing something that's
mundane to something that's of profound importance to both of us. It's the
kind of thing you could never set up ahead of time because people will put up
their defenses. If I'd said, "I'd like to talk a little bit with you about the
death of your daughter," he might have done it, but it would not have happened
organically the way it did. That's something I feel very strongly about.
Another instance of this is when I'm talking to Mary, the fashion model, near
the opening of the film. I haven't seen her since we were kids. We start off
talking about something very superficial--when we used to play Superman--then
the conversation turns to her kids, then to her feelings about divorce. Again,
it's all one shot and you can track the development of the dialogue in her
eyes. There's a moment of real sadness there that to me is absolutely
Did you assume from the beginning that the film was going to be a survey of
I think that the way in which the film begins to put itself on track is
fairly accurately described in the film itself. I knew I didn't want to make a
Space Coast-like documentary of the South. I thought I would do a
synthesis of Backyard and Space Coast: I would film some of my
relatives, but basically the film would not be so much about me as about my
homeland. I would have a personality, but initially I didn't know it would be
as important to film as it turned out to be. I began filming the Scottish
games, thinking, "Well, here's an interesting event." The imagery was sort of
bizarre: these guys tossing huge phallic poles around, guys in kilts wrestling
on the ground--all of it in the American South. It had a surreal quality.
The breakthrough occurred with my sister on the following day, when she
said--somewhat seriously, somewhat joking--"You should use the camera as a way
to meet women." She's sincerely upset about my having ended my relationship
with my girlfriend, and she's looking for ways to get me back on my feet. I
think she perceived me as being incapable of resurrecting my life--a lot worse
off than I really was. (Obviously I had the wherewithal to get a camera on my
shoulder and start filming something.) But at the point when she gave me her
advice about how to use the camera, I experienced a minor epiphany. The next
thing that happened was the announcement that Mary was in the neighborhood.
Why not look her up with the camera and see what happens? The
mini-portrait of Mary went well. She was gone the next day, so there was no
potential for filming her more, but it was a start. And it was a microcosm of
how the film might work.
Then I met Pat, who was a natural film subject. She loved being filmed, had no
self-consciousness whatsoever, was somewhat outrageous, articulate, and had
bizarre outlooks on life. And she had nothing to do but allow me to film her.
It was perfect.
One complaint I've heard about Sherman's March is that you center on
women who are bizarre, a little wacky, maybe objects of patronizing
I see them as being independent and intelligent for the most part. But
eccentric, yes. I don't see anything wrong with having chosen women who are
eccentric, who are unusual. Having decided to film women who are independent
in the South means they're going to have to be somewhat eccentric. The fact
that they decided not to embrace the more traditional conservative values of
the South, nor to accept the roles that most Southern women seem to accept,
made them by definition somewhat eccentric.
You know, I hear myself saying these things and immediately feel uncomfortable.
I'm not sure I have the sociological background to even begin to define who's
eccentric and who's not, who's conventional and who's not. And yet I feel
somehow that the women I filmed are somewhat out of the norm, and that's why I
decided to film them. I can only say that I wasn't attempting to make any
statement about the status of women in the South or in the United States. I
felt no obligation to select a group of women who were somehow representative
of something. I think the women in the film are wonderfully individualistic;
some are eccentric, some seem quite normal to me. A lot of them are struggling
with life, and I'm interested in that kind of struggling. We all do it.
I'm doing it in the film. I was interested in capturing some of that.
A lot of documentaries try to package things very neatly from an ideological
point of view. In some ways it leaves the viewer with a false sense that
problems have been solved, points of view have been neatly defined. I think
that's very dangerous. Life isn't like that.
A more valuable question to ask it, are we laughing with people or at them.
Pat, the woman in search of Burt Reynolds, is an aspiring actress. Some of the
things she says are quite outrageous, but she has a sense of self that in my
view enables her to get away with saying the things she says. I think she's a
fascinating and complicated and very unique person in the film, very
entertaining, very funny; she knows that we're laughing at a lot of the things
she says, but she's pleased with that fact. It's part of her way of presenting
herself to the world. She's seen the film and is delighted by it. She's even
had her agent circulate it to studios in California, hoping that she can get
It's true that a lot of the situations that I end up in or that the women end
up in are humorous or comic, but it's important to have a sense of humor about
life and about oneself. I see the situations as being funny, but not pathetic.
I've made films that flirt with filming the pathetic in other people's lives,
and it makes me very uncomfortable. I hope I've avoided doing it in
Do you think of yourself as a Southern filmmaker? The South has not played
a particularly conspicuous role in independent film-making.
I don't feel a responsibility to film the South. When I made
Backyard and Sherman's March , the South seemed very rich in
possibilities, and as you say, not so many other people have explored the
South. I'm glad that you've asked this question because I do think that aspect
of Sherman's March often gets overlooked. It's not merely an
autobiographical film; it's a film about a region, to some degree about a way
of life. I don't think I would be satisfied doing purely ethnographic films
about the South. There are certainly film-makers who choose to do that. There
are a number of documentaries which deal with the customs, the rituals, and the
arts and crafts of the South. These themes are of peripheral interest to me.
But I continue to be very interested in the way the South resists the
homogenization that seems to have made most other parts of the United States
indistinguishable from one another.
As to whether I consider myself to be a particularly Southern film-maker: it's
not important to me that I be described that way. I'm sure I could have gone
to California and made a film that in some senses would have been an equally
accurate portrait of California life. But because I am from the South, I have
a particular slant on the South that non-Southerners might not have, which
includes having access to people and places an outsider might not come across.
I take advantage of the fact that I'm Southern in making my films, but I don't
really think of myself as a Southern film-maker, and I hope that the films I've
made are of interest to people outside the South. Of course, there is a
tradition of Southern fiction (Flannery O'Conner, William Faulkner, Thomas
Wolfe...), and I think that the label as used there to indicate a genre of
literature that was created by writers from the South, but which transcends the
region, transcends the label of "Southern"--that's what I'm striving for.
The parallel between Sherman's march through the South and yours suggests
that you also think of yourself as a Northerner.
I am trying to draw a parallel between Sherman and myself, which is
accurate in some ways and comically ironic (I hope) in other ways. I do have
some things in common with Sherman although some of the parallels have been
reversed. He's a Northerner who was coming down South; I'm a Southerner who
went up North. But I also take it a step further and posit myself in the role
of an exiled Southerner living up North who returns to the South again. I both
identify with Sherman and find my personality and what my life stands for as
being in contra-distinction to what Sherman stood for. I both consider myself
to be a Southerner and to no longer be a son of the South. In some
sense the South is alien territory for me.
There's also a parallel in the fact that you and Sherman met mostly
Yes, most of the Southern troops were in Virginia at the time, with Robert E.
Lee, entrenched around Richmond. Left behind were women, children, and old
people. There's also the basic difference between Sherman and me in that
Sherman was quite successful in his campaign. He achieved his military
objectives. If one considers the purpose of my journey finding an ideal
Southern woman to marry, to fall in love with, whatever, I'm unsuccessful in my
"campaign." Time and time again, I meet with outright defeat or at best
there's a draw.
Is there a sense in which you use the camera as a weapon? Is that an
In no way am I really trying to use the camera as a weapon. But, of
course, the act of filming--no matter how gently, how sensitively it's
done--takes advantage of people's vulnerability. The act of filming is a
violation of some sort, an invasion of privacy, in a metaphorical sense perhaps
a rape of some kind, pillage of some kind. In the scene when Karen, the
attorney and ERA activist, tells me to stop filming, she has to tell me not
once, but three times. That suggest an indictment of the act of film-making.
The scene of Burt Reynolds at work in Charlotte is interesting, both because
Reynolds is a Southern star and, from my point of view, because--ironically,
since you're not allowed on the set-- Sherman's March is at least as
interesting a film as he's appeared in. Did you originally plan to "invade"
At first, I did go through proper channels. Had I talked myself onto
the set, I might have gotten some interesting imagery of Hollywood film-making
and of the creation of the Southern hero as represented by Burt Reynolds. But
even when I requested permission to be on the set, I understood that if they
denied it, I would then explore the point of view of the outsider peering over
the fence, or I might take a stab at going behind the scenes only to be
stopped. As things turned out, I pursued both and ended up with the second,
which seemed to me to work out fine. The scene is successful emblem for the
difference between two styles of film-making: the single-person documentary
approach is posited against the very complicated Hollywood way of making films,
where you have celebrity casts and large crews, and security forces to keep
people at bay.
The way the Ross McElwee persona develops in Sherman's March
reminds me of more of the literary device creating a narrating character whom
the reader does not entirely identify with, or, at least, who is different from
the writer. In Sherman's March there's a lot you don't reveal
(information about whether or not you're sexually involved with the women, for
example). We get an inside view of your life, but you as film-maker shape what
we see in such a way that we come to see you as a separate and somewhat
In Backyard I am represented primarily through my subjective
voice-over narration. You do see me in a mirror shot, and playing the piano,
but those are the only times you see the film-maker. In Sherman's March
I go a step further. I deliver monologues; I try to create an almost literary
voice-over. I think this enables the film to achieve a subjectivity it
wouldn't have otherwise. I could have filmed the same people in the same
situations without ever having said anything of revealed anything about my
personality. That film might have been interesting, but I think not as
interesting as when you hear something of what the film-maker in the setting
where the film is unfolding (such as at the tree house on he island when you
see me in the bunkbed). It seems to me that these things are absolutely
necessary to make the film work.
It's true that I'm not explicit about my sexual involvement with the women in
the film, some of whom I slept with, some of whom I didn't. It seemed to me
not the point of the film to graphically render that dimension of things, even
if it had been possible to do so. I think that by being respectful of the
women involved in the film vis-a-vis my sexual involvement with them, the film
gains more than it loses. To have been more explicit would have pushed the
film into sensationalism and solipsism that ultimately would have been
alienating. Also, we have to keep in mind that this is a film about real
people and real events. It's a documentary, not a fiction, and there are
certain issues of privacy one simply has to respect. But the tension of
sexuality being alluded to and yet not directly revealed adds a subtle tension
to the film that I hope works in its best interests.
It's also true that the Ross McElwee who's presented in the film is not a
completely rendered Ross McElwee. I don't say everything about myself that I
could be saying. I don't tell you everything that's on my mind. I am creating
a deadpan persona. Perhaps I create a heightened sense of depression,
heightened in an attempt to attain some sort of comic level. I'm creating a
persona for the film that based upon who I am, but it isn't exactly me. Of
course, it's hard to make this judgment myself. It's like the problem
Wittgenstein describes when he talks about how the eye can see the world but
can't see itself. It's difficult to know yourself and to know how you're
presenting yourself to the world.
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