McElwee shooting a scene from Bright Leaves
July 21, 1947 |
Charlotte, North Carolina
Ross McElwee is an American documentary filmmaker known for his autobiographical films about his family and personal life, usually interwoven with an episodic journey that intersects with larger political or philosophical issues. Cultural aspects of his Southern upbringing are present in his humorous and often self-deprecating films. 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 family. His father was a respected surgeon, and appears often as a character in McElwee's early films. From an early age McElwee nurtured an interest in writing. He later attended Brown University, where he studied under novelist John Hawkes, and graduated in 1971 with a degree in creative writing. But while at Brown, he also cross-registered in still photography courses at Rhode Island School of Design.
After graduating, McElwee lived for a year in Brittany, France and worked for a while as a wedding photographer's assistant. Upon returning to the US, he was admitted into MIT's new graduate filmmaking program, and graduated in 1977 with an M.S. While at MIT, 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 found summer employment as a studio cameraman for local evening news, housewife helper shows, and "gospel hour" programs. Later, he freelanced, as second cameraman for documentarians D.A. Pennebaker, and later 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 ten 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 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 a best film award in several festivals and was distributed theatrically throughout the U.S. Six O'Clock News premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was broadcast nationally over PBS's Frontline.
McElwee's films have been included in the festivals of Cannes, Berlin, London, Venice, Vienna, Rotterdam, Florence, and Sydney. Retrospectives include the Museum of Modern Art; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the American Museum of the Moving Image, New York; Retrospectives have also been held in Paris, Tehran, Moscow, Seoul, Lisbon, and Quito. 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 Paraguay premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2008. McElwee returned to Venice in 2011 to present the premier of Photographic Memory.
- Space Coast (1979) co-director Michel Negroponte
- Charleen (1980)
- Resident Exile (1981) co-director Alex Anthony and Michel Negroponte
- Backyard (1984)
- Sherman's March (1986)
- Something to Do with the Wall (1990) co-director Marilyn Levine
- 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.