McElwee shooting a scene from Bright Leaves
July 21, 1947 |
Charlotte, North Carolina
Ross McElwee (born July 21, 1947) is an American documentary filmmaker known for his autobiographical films about his family and personal life, usually interwoven with an episodic journey of some sort. Many cultural aspects of his Southern upbringing are present in his humorous and often self-deprecating films. Other themes include personal relationships, parody, failure, introspection, and historic parallelism. He has been a major contributor to the cinéma vérité movement. He received the Career Award at the 2007 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
Early life and education
Ross McElwee grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, in a traditional Southern bourgeois family. His father was a well- respected surgeon, and appears often as a character in McElwee's early films. From an early age he nurtured an interest in writing. He later attended Brown University and graduated in 1971 with a degree in creative writing.
A turning point in McElwee's life occurred when he undertook a self-discovery voyage to Brittany, France and began practicing photography. Soon after, he enrolled as a student at MIT's filmmaking program, which he graduated from in 1977 with an M.S. He studied under documentarians Richard Leacock and Ed Pincus, both pioneers of the cinéma vérité movement, with whom he refined his first person narrative approach. "It was a new way of making films, to eliminate the film crew. You lose some technical polish, but it's much more intimate and less intimidating to your subjects. It allows you to shoot with the autonomy and flexibility of a photojournalist."
McElwee's film career began in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina where he was a studio cameraman for local evening news, housewife helper shows, and "gospel hour" programs. Later, he freelanced, shooting films for documentarians D.A. Pennebaker followed by John Marshall, in Namibia. McElwee started filming and producing his own documentaries in 1976.
Ross McElwee has been teaching filmmaking at Harvard University since 1986 where he is a professor in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies.
Ross McElwee has made eight feature-length documentaries as well as several shorter films. Most of his films were shot in his homeland of the American South, among them the critically acclaimed Sherman's March, Time Indefinite, Six O'Clock News, and Bright Leaves. He collaborated with his girlfriend and later wife, Marilyn Levine, on Something to do with the Wall. His 2011 film, Photographic Memory, breaks new ground in McElwee's contributions to cinéma vérité, not only in its fully digital process, but in its open development and production structure.
Sherman's March won numerous awards, including Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. It was cited by the National Board of Film Critics as one of the five best films of 1986. Time Indefinite won best film award in several festivals and was distributed theatrically throughout the U.S.
McElwee's films have been included in the festivals of Berlin, London, Venice, Vienna, Rotterdam, Florence, Sydney, and Cannes. Retrospectives include the Museum of Modern Art; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the American Museum of the Moving Image, New York; McElwee has received fellowships and grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the American Film Institute. He has twice been awarded fellowships in filmmaking by the National Endowment for the Arts. Sherman's March was also chosen for preservation by the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 2000 as an "historically significant American motion picture."
McElwee's film Bright Leaves premiered at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival's Directors' Fortnight, and was nominated for Best Documentary of 2004 by both the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America. In 2005, complete retrospectives of McElwee's films were presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at the International Festival of Documentary Cinema in Lisbon.
- Space Coast (1979)
- Charleen (1980)
- Resident Exile (1981)
- Backyard (1984)
- Sherman's March (1986)
- Something to Do with the Wall (1990)
- Time Indefinite (1993)
- Six O'Clock News (1997)
- Bright Leaves (2003)
- In Paraguay (2008)
- Photographic Memory (2011)
- "Ross McElwee - Biography". ROSS MCELWEE / HOMEMADE MOVIES INC. Retrieved 2009-11-24.
- Ken Gewertz. "The world according to McElwee: A documentary filmmaker's unique personal vision" by Ken Gewertz, Harvard News Office, Harvard Gazette, Apr 21, 2005.
- Further reading
- Landscapes of the Self: The Cinema of Ross McElwee, edited by Efren Cuevas and Alberto N. García (Ediciones Internacionales Universitarias, Madrid, 2007). ISBN 978-84-8469-226-3. The book is in English and Spanish. The chapter in the book by E. Cuevas, Sculpting the Self: Autobiography according to Ross McElwee, is available on the web.
- Official website
- Ross McElwee's production
- Online conference with Ross McElwee at The D-Word
- Ross McElwee at the Internet Movie Database