McElwee’s march brings him back to North Carolina

by Amy Kingsley

The narrator of the film Bright Leaves dryly notes that his great-grandfather, John Harvey McElwee, never succeeded in amassing a family fortune to be passed down to future generations.

Instead, Ross McElwee ‘— the voice and vision behind the film ‘— describes a sort of macabre bequest left by the failed tobacco baron to the three generations of physicians that followed. Parts of the film, a meditation on the McElwee legacy (or lack thereof) and tobacco culture in North Carolina, focus on patients suffering smoking-related afflictions. When the younger McElwee’s cousin introduces him to a film he believes is based on their great-grandfather’s story, the door swings open for the family’s lone non-physician to grab a piece of that legacy for himself.

That old black-and-white, Bright Leaf, stars Clark Gable as a tycoon who earned his fortune when he developed a special formula for rolling tobacco. His rival steals the formula and runs Gable’s character Brant Royle out of business.

This, as it turns out, mirrors the McElwee family’s account of what happened to the once-powerful John Harvey, who developed the Durham Bull brand of rolling tobacco allegedly stolen by William Buchanan Duke. After burning through his amassed fortune in a series of unsuccessful court battles, McElwee’s stature plummets while the Dukes grow into the most powerful family in the state.

While the old 16 mm provides a loose framework for the plot of Bright Leaves, McElwee roams tangential territory ranging from global implications to personal reflections with the ease of a scion roving the ancestral mansion. He avoids preaching about the evils of the tobacco industry, instead choosing to train his lens on the family farmers who live humbly on each season’s take and on casual smokers themselves.

‘“I refuse to make the film everybody expects,’” he says. ‘“It’s been done. I’m interested in using smoking to explore the tendency of humans to indulge in denial and to gamble.’”

In the wrong hands, a film in reference to an older film ostensibly about one’s family has the potential to degenerate into a blinding flurry of references. McElwee, a visiting professor at Harvard University for the last 10 years, resists the impulse to create dense and obfuscating scenes as fodder for his academic colleagues. His touch is elegantly light.

The flashes of self-reference are in fact some of the most playful parts of the film. There’s the bit where film theorist Vlada Petric straps McElwee into a wheelchair and wheels him around the NC School of the Arts film set five times while disparaging the film Bright Leaf. Then, later on, the filmmaker sets up a scene of himself walking across the camera.

‘“I was dogged by doubts,’” the narration starts. Then a yapping dog barrels down on McElwee’s feet. ‘“I was dogged ‘… by a dog.’”

It is a brief example of one documentary technique ‘— spontaneity ‘— McElwee gleaned from the cinema verite movement of the 1960s.

‘“There’s something so elegant and wonderful about shooting a documentary where you’re not in charge,’” he says. ‘“But it’s also very frustrating.’”

McElwee, a native of Charlotte, described the film as ‘“a fractured love letter to North Carolina.’” It isn’t his first. He earned the Sundance nod for best documentary in 1986 with a film called Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.

Sherman’s March created a sort of template for the films to follow. Many focus on the South, and all place McElwee at the center of the action.

It is a style that influenced Michael Moore, who saw Sherman’s March, and contacted McElwee about a similar project focusing on him hometown, Flint, Mich. The resulting film, Roger & Me, launched Moore’s directing career.

At the time McElwee conceived Sherman’s March, documentaries like Supersize Me and Fahrenheit 9/11 hadn’t yet come along to normalize the technique of using the filmmaker as a subject. He described his style as a natural outgrowth of his journey toward filmmaking in his mid-twenties.

‘“I started out wanting to be a writer,’” he says. ‘“And when I switched to film, the part of me that liked writing had to acknowledge the importance of a voice. When I switched into making documentaries, the genre didn’t really include the persona of the filmmaker. Then I just discovered that I was much more comfortable making films about other people’s lives if they also included my life.’”

And Southerness is both part of his life and the film Bright Leaves. It is one thing, along with a penchant for documentation (much of the film is culled from old home movies), his family willed to McElwee in lieu of a tobacco fortune.

On Feb. 25, the board of trustees of the Carolina Film and Video Festival sent an intact love letter back to McElwee in the form of recognition as North Carolina Distinguished Filmmaker for 2006. He accepted with thanks for an opportunity to be back in the state he loves.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at