Documentary Classics: Bright Leaves


As part of trying to catch up with great documentaries I never saw, as I try to embark on non day to day grind video work, I chanced upon Bright Leaves on Netflix, a 2003 oeuvre de coeur by the very unique Ross McElwee.



Part home video as the very much involved director says, part investigation into a family's and a region's role in the "job-creating" but "killing us all as we inhale and exhale" tobacco industry, with many mirrors and winks, and absurdities exposed... the tobacco paid for Duke university's hospital with its cancer victims carrying around their dialysis machines sneaking out for a smoke is one example... the region's successful people are now the doctors curing the cancer patients, while successful tobacco farmers go to church to try to forget about the grim realities of nicotine addiction they've taken part in ... the list goes on and on.

Fascinating characters, beautiful scenery, the use of film and McElwee's usual penchant for excellent storytelling, weaving, writing, sidestepping, not pounding any theme but brushing lightly with long film shots and wry narration make this documentary an instant classic.

McElwee also reflects on death, celluloid and real, as well as the value of cinematic moments in getting closer to the truth. This one scene in particular may please film students, before its dizzying madness sets in which is probably the point.



This is just the second McElwee movie I've seen after Sherman's March, where a romantic quest gets in the way of a historical journey but not in exposing America's still deep north/south divide. I hope to watch many more McElwee films.

BRIGHT LEAVES is also timeless and relevant as politicians always talk about "job creators" and "job creation", but sometimes we should maybe also think of what that means in the greater picture of humanity, and McElwee does a great job of making us think, without imposing any view.

I definitely put McElwee in my own pantheon of top current documentary filmmakers, alongside Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. He may be less commercial, and his style may be getting more and more personal rather than less, but to me that is greatly to his credit, to be able to be a filmmaker with so much intimacy.

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