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Bright Leaves
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by Beth Gilligan

"An intriguing examination of history, both local and personal."
4 stars

Ross McElwee made a name for himself in 1986 with the documentary Sherman's March. What began as an examination of a region's Civil War history turned into a more personal exploration of the director's family and love life. In Bright Leaves, McElwee follows a similar track, investigating his family's role in developing one of the most notorious products to come out of the South: tobacco.

In a year when non-fictions films like Fahrenheit 9/11, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, and Super-Size Me have made a splash in both the mainstream media and the box office, it’s tempting to herald a new era for documentary films. Big, bold, and ready for mass consumption, they have managed to go where few documentaries have gone before: the multiplex. However, for every outsized personality like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, there are quieter, more introspective filmmakers interested in exploring the personal and the political in an understated way. As a result, their films don’t often play beyond the arthouses in major cities, but are nevertheless worth a look.

Ross McElwee is one of those filmmakers. His films are intriguing examinations of what it means to be from the American South. Despite having long abandoned his home state of North Carolina for the liberal enclave of Cambridge, Massachusetts (where he teaches film at Harvard University), McElwee remains committed to examining what it means to be from the American South. He often uses local history as a jumping-off point for his films, but each one inevitably turns inward, leading to an intensely personal meditation on the director’s own life.

In Bright Leaves, McElwee turns his camera (which he mostly operates himself) on the South’s long-booming tobacco industry, which has given a tremendous economic boost to the region but has also led to millions of cancer-related deaths. Complicating matters further is McElwee’s discovery that his great-grandfather developed the formula for Durham Bull tobacco (a formula some historians allege was stolen from the elder McElwee by the Duke family, who went on to make a fortune with it). In researching this intriguing story, the filmmaker stumbles across an old Gary Cooper movie called Bright Leaf (1950). Set in the 1890s, the film centers around the family battles that shaped the early days of the tobacco industry. Upon viewing Bright Leaf, McElwee cannot help but suspect that Cooper’s character was based on his own great-grandfather.

With all this newfound information swirling around in his head, McElwee sets off to make sense of it all, stopping along the way to interview cancer patients, his former schoolteacher Charleen (who makes an appearance in all his films), actress Patricia Neal (who co-starred with Cooper in Bright Leaf), and film theorist Vlada Petric.

In less assured hands, the film could have easily dissolved into a self-indulgent, scattered mess, but McElwee somehow manages to locate common themes and turn out what can best be described a filmic version of a personal essay, and a fascinating one at that.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=8934&reviewer=379
originally posted: 08/31/04 15:34:56
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Philadelphia Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Sydney Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Sydney Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Brisbane Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Brisbane Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/14/04 lior albeck-ripka a captivating alternative to chain smoking and drinking good red for two hours 5 stars
9/30/04 bruce walter excellent film - very entertaining 5 stars
9/03/04 John Garrison navel gazing 1 stars
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Directed by
  Ross McElwee

Written by
  Ross McElwee

  Ross McElwee
  Charleen Swansea

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