When it was announced that filmmaker and previous Full Frame Career Award recipient Ross McElwee (Sherman's March) would curate this year's "Family Affairs" thematic program on Saturday, many McElwee admirers must have exclaimed "Of course!"
If there is a documentary filmmaker who knows how to merge family matters into his films, it's Charlotte's McElwee. In the 2004 film Bright Leaves, he delved into North Carolina's rich tobacco history while exploring his own family history and trying to maintain a bond with his skateboarding, preteen son, Adrian. His new film, Photographic Memory, which will receive its world premiere Friday at Full Frame, shows that the bond hasn't strengthened. Adrian has turned into a typical teenager—sullen, obnoxious, slightly self-destructive—who makes McElwee flee the country in order to better understand him. And, also, to prevent him from ringing the little punk's neck.
McElwee recently talked to the Indy about his latest film, his program at Full Frame and just how things are going between him and his son.
Independent Weekly: So, you're been summoned back to Full Frame to curate this year's "Family Affairs" thematic program. How did this union come about?
Ross McElwee: Full Frame is a wonderful event that, though homegrown—at least from the perspective of this Southerner—has achieved an international reputation. I was asked to curate a section on films about family, and since I've made a few of those myself, I guess they thought I was a natural choice for curator. I did refine the definition a bit by narrowing it to autobiographical documentaries about family, which complicates the filmmaking in interesting ways.
Your new movie Photographic Memory shows you coping with your, shall we say, ornery son by traveling to France and getting in touch with people from your youth. You appear to juxtapose your more adventurous youth with your son's, which has him always at the mercy of his computer or some device. Is this your way of telling kids to put down the damn iPhone and experience life?
Not really. Or maybe I'm just suggesting that young people perhaps consider calibrating a little the ratio of online life to actually living. But I'm not a Luddite about social media. It's clearly here to stay. I think one of the things I'm interested in in my film is the way things have changed so radically in only one generation in terms of communication and artistic expression. The effects of the generational shift from analog to digital has been massive—on our society, and on the world as a whole. But I'm certainly not saying that my generation's way of expressing itself was better than my son's. There was no dearth of foolishness associated with the analog 1960s and '70s.
You really dive into your relationship with your son quite honestly and nakedly. Has he seen the movie, and will he be there to check it out at Full Frame?
Adrian has traveled with me to Venice, Lisbon, Paris and Los Angeles, where he has helped me present the film in public and even taken questions from the audience after screenings. He's accepted the film on its own terms, perhaps more than I have.
You also quietly mourn the death of film in the movie. With film print currently going the way of the 8-track tape, was this something you really wanted to explore in this film?
Yes, it was certainly intentional that the demise of film and its replacement by high-definition digital video be acknowledged in my film. But I don't think of it as a major theme. It's more of a filmmaker's lament—a somewhat romantic, low-decibel cri de coeur—but not especially worth dwelling on. So, I don't. It just comes up now and then and also functions as a metaphor for the difference between my son's world and my own.
Finally, as someone who been to several Full Frame festivals and received the Career Award, how important has this festival been for you, and what would you like people to take away from it?
Just try to see as many films as you can. The lineup of documentaries is stunning. They were culled from more than 2,000 entries from all over the world. And, also, savor the experience of sitting in that dark room with other strangers and relating to a world that is not completely your own—in some ways, the opposite of Facebook.