In between my two years at MIT’s graduate filmmaking program, I came home to Charlotte, NC to spend the summer. I was initially interested in two documentary possibilities, and began filming them as separate projects. The first was to have been about Clyde Cathy, a black bee-keeper who worked for my father as a yardman. I knew that Clyde had some mystical notions about bees, and I was interested in filming him as he worked around our family’s house, and also as he worked with his bee hives. The second film was to have been about the relationship between my father and my brother, Tom, who was preparing to go off to New Orleans for his first year of medical school. I thought this might be a long-term project, in which I would film Tom off and on over the four years it would take him to get his medical degree. I assumed he would eventually come back to Charlotte and practice with my father, and that this would provide wonderful closure. But my two films wanted to meld, and I could not keep them apart. What seemed to hold them together, thematically, was the location – my family’s backyard – and I pretty much restricted my filming to the yard and a few other locations in the neighborhood.
So Backyard became about insecurity, denial, anger, compromise, acquiescence – in short, all those warm feelings that can make going home to visit the family such a memorable experience. Backyard is about a politely enforced Carolina style of apartheid where blacks clean up after whites in the kitchen, the bedroom, and the hospital operating room. It’s about the tensions arising from the expectations of a physician father for his two sons, one a medical student and the other a filmmaker. And it’s about a mother’s death, a death that’s never been discussed in the family. Backyard is more about what’s not said that what’s said, what’s not done than what’s done. —Ross McElwee
Ross McElwee took the basic precepts of cinéma vérité and personalized them to create a unique form of documentary making that earned him much acclaim and several awards. His work is almost always autobiographical and he often films himself at some of life’s most personal and awkward moments, though usually within the bounds of decency and good taste. Though there are many who feel his documentaries are too slow-paced, detailed, or abstract to be appreciated, there are an equal number of fans who love slowly being drawn more deeply into his world. The three feature films most representative of his style are also his most famous: Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation (more simply known as Sherman’s March), Time Indefinite, and Backyard.
A native of Charlotte, NC, McElwee earned his bachelor’s degree from Brown University and, a few years later, earned a master’s in filmmaking from the Massachusetts… read more