It was soft-spoken Southerner McElwee, now 57, who pioneered the form of personal documentary Moore and his ilk have parlayed into nothing short of a contemporary doc renaissance. For 25 years, McElwee has made himself -- but also the South -- the subject of seven features, from his 1986 Sundance Best Documentary Sherman's March to his current fugue on family history and tobacco, Bright Leaves.
With a string of introspective, diaristic documentaries defined by his self-effacing on-camera presence and gently cadenced Carolina accent, McElwee has woven his personal travails into larger contemplation of the Southern character. His bittersweet Sherman's March found the director analyzing his own romantic dire straits, while simultaneously philosophizing on Gen. Sherman's love/hate relationship with the South he burned to a crisp.
"I think Sherman's March inspired a lot of people to go ahead and pick up a camera and try making a film about something that was either a part of their own lives or important to them," says McElwee. One of those people was Michael Moore, who once told McElwee that he was the inspiration behind his first film, Roger & Me.
Sherman's March set a pattern for all of McElwee's subsequent documentaries, including his latest, Bright Leaves. The navel-gazing detective story finds McElwee traveling home again to sort fact from fiction in the family drama of a great-grandfather who created Bull Durham tobacco but lost his entire fortune to business rival James Duke, thus reducing the McElwee family name to a butt in history's ashtray.
McElwee passed through Atlanta recently, a city much changed from its cameo in Sherman's March as an oddly depopulated, small-scale meta-city. Not just the city, but the nature of the independent film industry has dramatically changed since 1986, and there's no clearer evidence than the afternoon bustle at Apres Diem where McElwee sits sipping iced tea in the shadow of one mark of the city's own documentary renaissance, Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. While McElwee's films have traditionally played in an obscure smattering of repertory houses, myriad indie venues now allow documentaries to reach an entirely new audience. McElwee, who began making films in the '70s, is as shocked as anyone by the current documentary movement.
"When I was beginning to make films and telling people I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker, everyone assumed I was either going to make science films for Nova or films about African wildlife."
Though McElwee's filmmaking is greatly influenced by the '60s nonfiction film movement of cinema verite, he admits that his rambling, richly textured films filled with reoccurring Southern characters, like his charismatic, no-nonsense friend Charleen, are probably just as indebted to literature and McElwee's own early interest in being a writer.
"There was always a desire to write with my medium, and my voice-over narration became a way for me to incorporate this desire," admits McElwee.
McElwee initially studied creative writing as an undergraduate at Brown University, but his interests shifted as he became aware of the New Journalism popularized by writers like Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer.
The influence of New Journalism is keenly felt in his film work. McElwee takes the factual recording of reality that documentary prides itself on, and uses his own Southern "character" to reveal the component of interpretive intervention and subjectivity which is also a less acknowledged feature of the genre.
With one crucial difference.
While the New Journalists tended to investigate unfamiliar worlds, McElwee's subject matter is more suggestive of the Southern tradition of Harry Crews and William Faulkner, whose work was deeply enriched by its writers' Southernness.
Though born in Charlotte, McElwee has lived far above the Mason-Dixon since 1986, teaching in Harvard's Department of Visual and Environmental Studies.
So even though his life in the North has made him a kind of exile, McElwee's films record a place and people he is inextricably bound to. That tension between past and present -- also so much a part of the Southern character -- gives his films their sense of melancholy.
"I love the South. And also it's a great place to film. People are just so much more relaxed and less self-conscious than in the North and the West Coast. People are so camera conscious up there. They're always wondering: Where's the deal? Where's the contract? It's very refreshing to come to the South still."
And despite the aura of anxiety and homesickness that attends his film persona, McElwee's chosen career has made him as happy as a clam.
"I'm not getting rich, but I'm making a living at it and my films are getting out there. What more could you want? I feel so lucky that things have worked out that way. So no, I have no complaints. I don't look at Hollywood and say, 'Oh, that's really where I want to be.'"