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'Bright Leaves' director blows into Loft

Photo Courtesy of ADRIAN McELWEE
"Bright Leaves" - Ross Mcelwee's documentary is a tale about Mcelwee and his family's connections to the North Carolina tobacco industry. The personal documentary garnered him a nomination for a Director's Guild Award. It opens at the Loft Cinema Friday.
By Nate Buchik
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, January 27, 2005
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Not many documentary filmmakers can be recognized by voice alone.

Sure, Michael Moore's is pretty recognizable, but that's due to the obscene amount of exposure he receives.

That leaves only Ross McElwee, who has a North Carolina twang that's instantly noticeable to non-fiction junkies and prominently featured in his personal documentaries.

McElwee's latest, "Bright Leaves," opens at the Loft Cinema Friday, where he is scheduled to appear and speak about his work.

The film deals with McElwee's family and how they are connected to the tobacco industry in North Carolina. His grandfather created the Bull Durham brand cigarette and may be the inspiration for the 1950 film "Bright Leaf," because he lost his fortune to a rival tobacco company.

McElwee travels through North Carolina, reflecting on his family and meeting different people along the way. Like his past documentaries, it's a meandering journey, taking on social, personal and historical themes along the way.

But in the wrong hands, it could have easily been another tale about the danger of smoking.

"I was determined not to make a film about the evils of the tobacco industry nor about the fact that smoking is harmful for you. I think most of us already know this," said McElwee, who is also a Harvard professor. "But at the same time, I knew I had to address the problems involved with tobacco. It would be irresponsible not to do so."

"Sherman's March," his 1986 film that starts with a historical subject and turns into a story about McElwee's relationships with women, gave McElwee his first taste of fame. The film also gave him a signature style of personal documentaries, often emulated and never duplicated, that he has used on "Time Indefinite" and "Six O'Clock News."

His current film has been receiving critical acclaim nationwide and even earned him a Directors Guild of America nomination for Documentary Filmmaker.

"I'm just honored to be nominated for a DGA, since this is an award voted on by film directors," he said. "Someday, I'd like to be nominated for an Oscar, but it's not going to be this year."

"Bright Leaves" is very much a film by Ross McElwee, as he acts as cameraman, interviewer, editor, director and narrator of his films.

His filmography almost provides a history of his family's life, and his son Adrian is prominently featured in his last few films.

The beauty lies in how he manages to integrate these familial elements with such grace. It's as if he lets the camera move as it wishes, from shots of his son on the beach to a historical tobacco landmark.

His humor and wit provide transitions from one subject to another, and there's never a dull moment.

Part of what sets his current films apart is that he still believes in the beauty of film. While many documentaries are shot on video, because of the cost, McElwee continues to use 16mm film. He said that he went through 90 to 100 rolls of film on this project.

"It seems inevitable that I will have to switch over to (digital video) at some point, but I'll keep shooting film stock until they stop giving me the funding to shoot it," Mcelwee said.

With the success of his projects, it's doubtful his funding will get cut.

"It's a very exciting time to be a documentary filmmaker. When I began making documentaries, it was an obscure praxis. But that's certainly not true anymore," he said.

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