Review by Beth Gilligan
Posted on 31 January 2006
Source First Run Features DVD
While Charleen may give viewers an in-depth look at one of the liveliest personalities to grace Ross McElwee’s documentaries, it stands apart from the rest of his films in its conventional approach to its eccentric subject. Backyard, on the other hand, fits in snugly with the rest of the filmmaker’s highly personal, occasionally meandering examinations of life in the South. While his former teacher/mentor Charleen Swansea remains conspicuously absent, the rest of the people featured in the film — for the most part, his family — make recurring appearances in later McElwee works. Thematically, it also coheres with many of the preoccupations voiced by the director in later films such as Sherman’s March and Bright Leaves.
The movie begins with a still photograph of McElwee and his father facing each other, with the familiar sound of McElwee’s drawl on the soundtrack recounting a contentious encounter between the two. To the extreme displeasure of the elder McElwee, who is a conservative Republican, staunch Presbyterian, and respected surgeon, his son’s career ambitions include joining the peace movement, entering a Buddhist monastery, and filmmaking. Having established that tension, McElwee then shifts the focus to the complicated dynamics within the rest of his immediate family, including the elderly African-American couple who played a significant role in raising him as a boy. With trademark candor, he also trains his camera on his brother, whose decision to attend medical school has clearly made him the apple of his father’s eye, and the family’s different ways of coping with the relatively recent (and sudden) death of McElwee’s mother.
In this particular film, it is the things that remain unsaid — the family’s unwillingness to talk about Mrs. McElwee’s demise or the complicated race relations in the town — that pack the most powerful punch. In only 40 minutes, Backyard manages to leave as strong an impression as some of McElwee’s better-known, lengthier works.