What appeared to be just another documentary on the harmful effects of tobacco turned out to be much more interesting. Here's the gist of Bright Leaves: the filmmaker, a guy named Ross McElwee, decided to make a personal documentary about his family and their involvement in the booming tobacco industry of the late-1800s. Turns out that his great-grandfather competed against James Buchanan Duke (who later founded Duke University) at the turn of the century.
Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) directed a film called Bright Leaf starring Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall, and Patricia Neal. The film tells the story of two competing tobacco farmers which McElwee thinks is based on his grandfather's story. He travels to North Carolina to interview a slew of people about his homestate's history, attempting to piece together the puzzle that is his family history.
LIVE FEED COMMENT (0:05:42): That guy is living my dream.
His cousin, a film collector screens a print of Bright Leaf for him and the adventure begins. The documentary does an effective job of weaving together many interconnecting narrative lines. The viewer learns about the McElwee family line, Southern history, the evolution of early tobacco enterprising, and Hollywood's Golden Age. Not to mention, in one of the film's most enthralling segments, film historian and theorist Vlada Petric pushes the camera-weiling moviemaker around in a makeshift wheelchair dolly while explaining the use of kinetics in film.
LIVE FEED COMMENT (0:48:27): This is one of the most interesting scenes I've ever seen in my entire life. I can hardly understand what he's trying to convey but it doesn't matter. Every documentary should have a low-angle dolly tracking shot. If I made a documentary, every interview scene would be shot in Spike Lee tracking shots.
As the film continues on, it becomes increasingly clear how personal the subject matter is to McElwee. What's impressive is how tight he's able to keep the film. Coming in at about 105 minutes, Bright Leaves is incredibly succinct. I'd imagine that the more you're personally invested in the subject matter the more difficult placing limits on yourself becomes. Somehow, McElwee keeps everything in line and the result is an incredibly interesting film that's definitely worth watching. Out of all the Never Heard of It films so-far, this is the one I would recommend. Hence,