"Bright Leaves" is a beautiful, unassuming documentary by native Carolinian Ross McElwee
. The film is principally an autobiographical meditation
on the McElwee family's roots as Carolina Tobacco
farmers, which muses thoughtfully on many different aspects of the tobacco industry
, from the "bright leaves" of the films title which the farmers grow and nurture, the huge warehouses
in which the tobacco is auctioned and stored, to the allure and romanticism
, and also, the horrors of cancer
and smoking related illnesses and deaths, and the guilt
that this brings to bear on all aspects of the industry.
Bright Leaves is so much more than merely a study of the tobacco industry. It is a personal history, a sometimes touching, sometimes funny home-movie, which explores the relationship between the McElwee's family history and its possible representation in a Michael Curtiz film of 1950, called "Bright Leaf", starring Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall, Patricia Neil, and a host of other Hollywood stars. McElwee's cousin, a collector of film stills and rare Hollywood movie reels, discovers the little-known film in his collection and notices the similarity between the storyline in the film and the McElwee's own family history. Particularly between the director's great-grandfather (John McElwee) and the character played by Gary Cooper in the Curtiz film.
John McElwee had been the owner of a large tobacco farm in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the director grew up, and created the brand of tobacco known as "Bull Durham". There was, however, another tobacco-growing family in town, the Dukes, who challenged and fought the McElwee's for supremacy in the tobacco industry. The Dukes formed their own brand of tobacco, which they called "Durham Bull", and thus a litigation war between the two families began, which was dragged through the courts for years, and eventually led to the bankruptcy of the McElwees, and the rise to supremacy of the Dukes, amidst local allegations of foul play on the side of the Dukes.
In his search to validify the biographical roots of the Curtiz film, McElwee seeks out and interviews not only the wife of the now-deceased author of the book on which the film is based (Foster FitzSimmons), and the actress Patricia Neil who stars in the film. But, in what was, for me, the funniest scene in the film, McElwee also interviews Vlada Petric, a film historian, who traps the director and riffs/lectures him on the art of documentary filmmaking, the Curtiz film and his preference for the low-angle shot and kinesthetic filmmaking! Filmmaking itself becomes the third subject of this documentary.
The forth, and final subject of the documentary are the filmmakers' own family, his brothers, sisters, children, nieces and nephews, and his own musings on his family's heritage and the sense of heritage he would like to impart on his own children.
"Bright Leaves" is an excellent piece of cinema; touching, warm, reflective, funny, and intelligent. If you get the opportunity to see it, don't miss it.
For more information on the film and screenings near you, see the film's website at www.brightleaves.com.