Sherman’s March

April 5, New York: I struggled to explain to Jill why I thought she wouldn’t like this movie, but that I love it. It is not because it’s a brutal depiction of William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea. There is no visual representation of the first instance of “total war” in the modern era. If anything, it’s hard to recommend Sherman’s March because it’s slow, perhaps indulgent, plodding even. So much film is burned on introspection, on meandering interviews, on the barley-visible moon deep in the black of night. But I think this is exactly what I love so much about this movie. All the burned film!

I started making documentaries in the era of digital video. Tape was cheap and plentiful (heck, you could get a halfway decent DV tape in most convenience stores when I was in college). I shot a lot of tape in this same fashion that McElway uses— the camera up at my eye, off to my shoulder, or often down at my hip with a piece of gaff tape over the record light. I picked this up in a series of classes in college, taught by Allen Rucker, called “Guerrilla Television”. It was that one thing I learned in college that defined my career; through that class I met my first professional mentor and set myself on a path as a documentary journalist with a sloppy camera hand.

And so it’s not until I have a college degree in filmmaking, not until I’m being paid to bring some aspect of this documentary work to an employer, that I finally see Sherman’s March and it boggles my mind. Everything about this film resonates with me and my work. How many projects have I begun that started with one topic and drifted into another? Plenty. That’s why you never turn the camera off. But with 16mm film? All that time is so much money! It’s incredible!

I love this film as a filmmaker. I love wondering through the early scenes about when McElway’s focus shifts. Was it his secret intention to make a film about loves lost and revisited when he filed for the grant? Does it progress slowly over time? There are so many great early scenes he captures that astonish me when I think about the cost of physical film. He’s a filmmaker on a grant grasping around for the thread of a story at hundreds of dollars a reel. At one point he says in the voice-over: “I really don’t have any idea what to do with this film, but I’ll stay here ’til I figure it out.” I love that.

Buy this movie from the Internet, and be better for it.

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