BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: introducing Ross McElwee.

THE FILM SOCIETY has opened its mini-retrospective of brilliant American documentary maker Ross McElwee with two of his earlier short-ish films: Charleen and Backyard. The recent spate of self-deprecating, confessional documentary-making (e.g. I Am a Sex Addict) have their roots in McElwee’s distinctive work. His essay-films merge the social and the historical into something, well, personal (though not necessarily about himself). His hilarious, incisive work reaches its peak with next week’s Film Society film Sherman’s March, but these two little films provide plenty of pleasure, and point to his later works’ idiosyncrasies.

Charleen tackles a brilliant subject, McElwee’s high school English teacher, Charleen Swansea. Swansea appears in a number of McElwee’s later films, and McElwee films his subject in Charleen with a detached eye. Swansea was once a friend (at the very least) of poet/fascist Ezra Pound, and cuts a hilarious yet decidedly sad figure. She’s flirty, gregarious, vulnerable. McElwee follows Swansea as she puts on a poetry show with her students and her boyfriend, Jim. I must confess to laughing every-time I saw Jim, as I’m not sure if his haircut was more frightening that Anton Chigurh’s in No Country for Old Men. But for all the laughs (particularly the couple plus one’s telephone argument), the film effortlessly moves to poignancy by the end – her bandages on her wrist hinting at a suppressed vulnerability. Charleen was wonderfully moving, and a beautiful wee portrayal.

Backyard was filmed earlier in 1976, but was only completed in 1984. The traits of Sherman’s March are evident here: wry narration, self-mockery (the continued refrain of McElwee attempting to play “The Moonlight Sonata” on an out-of-tune piano), digressions and narrative improvisation, and a comfortable blend of the avant-garde and the confessional. Backyard examines McElwee’s successful family, as he returns to the South from studying up North in USA. But behind the sugary façade of affluence, McElwee paints a beady eye of race relations, focusing the forgotten workers who help this prosperity. McElwee has a real empathy and love for the underdog and his films never feel exploitative. Backyard’s juxtapositions may have been a little bit too forced and perhaps a little more development would have assisted in shading in the subtlety. That said, the film forms a wonderful companion piece to Charleen, and highlights McElwee’s status as a fascinating and, loveable filmmaker. Loveable’s not something you say about many filmmakers.