General Orders #9: An Interview with Robert Persons

In his debut film General Orders #9, artist Robert Persons dispatches poetry, animation and exquisite photography to create an impressionistic portrait of his homestate of Georgia. Starting with its geological birth and tracing its history all the way through a theoretical, dystopic future, Persons projects his affection, fascination and fears onto a subject which has typically served as a backdrop for soft-focused morality tales at the hands of other filmmakers. The film evokes a similar response as the works of photographer Myoung Ho Lee and sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, using great artifice to examine elements in nature with oddly soothing results.

Since its debut at the Slamdance film festival, where it picked up the Best Cinematography award, General Orders #9 has played dozens of prestigious fests around the world. When I caught the film last spring at the Hot Docs International Film Festival in Toronto, the press suite where visitors could go for quick respite between screenings and parties were a buzz about this new documentary that is incredibly personal in scope but hugely original in its execution.

I spoke to Persons while he was on vacation in the Gulf Coast. We discussed why the documentary form needs to be reinvented, what to do when you love films your idols hate, and the changing ways filmmakers are connecting with their audience.

How did General Orders #9 come to be?

I don't believe you can make a film like General Orders #9 unless you felt you had no other choice. There can be a certain level of "arrogance" in that..I wrote a lot of poems, painted a lot, took photographs. I've been compulsively visually oriented, I happen to be able to write. I couldn't find a community of like-mined people, I had a hard time getting my work out. I loved the work of Werner Herzog, Alain Resnais, Andrei Tarkosvsky, Errol Morris, Chris Marker, I began to understand what film could do.

It contains all those forms.

It does. I had experiences watching film that were so sublime, that I hadn't experienced any other way. I got kicked out of three colleges, it took me six years to graduate. I've only ever had one respectable job...

What was that?

At a magazine publisher in Charleston, SC. So I got some exposure to typography and design and printing.

There can be a danger in being critical of progress; a lot of people will interpret it as fetishizing the past, complete with all of the horrible cultural associations of the time you're reminiscing. This seems especially dicey when talking about the legacy of the American South. How have audiences responded to the film?

It is very dicey, but I reject the premise that an artist is disallowed from "fetishizing the past" if that past occurred in the American South. That would suggest, as well, that you can only be "critical of progress" in certain regions of the country. I felt that the film should be free to develop as it would without feeling pressured to wink at the audience and let them know that, "I, too, know that slavery was a hideous and immoral institution and the repercussions are still playing out." The film is not a documentary on the legacy of the American South, but rather a specific individual's experience of it and his personal search for meaning.

Audiences are, at best, sort of mesmerized and lost throughout the film. When it is over, they are not sure what they have seen, but they know they like it and that something strange has happened. It's serious business, and sometimes it's not fun. They're not sure what to think or feel. Some go home and take naps. Others are beset by the experience for weeks on end. Others are looking for a more direct narrative. They soon find it.

It's an odd comparison, but watching the film I was reminded of Mad Men and some of the criticism the show has received for glamorizing cruel or dysfunctional behavior because it's so stylized it can't have a social commentary.

When I think about Mad Men, it seems people have created this perfectly beautiful thing that depicts that culture from another time... and whatever the reality [was] of the time, Mad Men doesn't take a stand and announce "this is wrong." I don't think it needs to have a commentary. I approach it from a different point of view: I made a film that's beautiful, there's a part of the film that presents the agrarian culture of the South in an idealized way, and it's not real, it's like a memory. It's meant to be a hermetic vision of something. What drives that is what's inside of us, having a good memory of your hometown... loving the land and the country. What drove this film is my love of the land and my family. The second half of the film is a nightmare confessional.

No one in the audience has ever had a problem, or spoken up about it. There's an experience in General Orders #9, it's a procession of feelings, especially in the theatrical setting. I've seen a few people [discussing the film] online who saw a screener who said some knee-jerk things. I made an ambiguous film about the South. It's not a history lesson, it's not a definitive statement. It doubts itself, it asks more questions than it answers. Everyone takes away something different. It's like staring into a fire at night, wherever your mind goes.

Is there a certain type of film you were reacting against?

I'm an English major, so I've read everything set in the South, seen every film I could get my hands on and there was just something missing. There was nothing cinematic. There's nothing between Night of the Hunter and Ken Burns's Civil War. I felt there was room for something a little more oblique. It's something that everyone from the South has to come to terms with, though some people just ignore it.

Something I love about the film is that it seems incredibly personal but completely avoids the current trend of embarrassing over-sharing.

Yeah, I'm totally against that. I should be able to make a film that is compelling and unique without shaming my family or myself. I've seen enough of those.

We all have!

I just want to be honest. I just don't think finding a dysfunctional person who is weird and charming and filming them as they ruin their lives or rise above or whatever... it's terrible. I wanted the film to be free and clear of me. I don't want people to want to know about me. The feelings came from me but I don't want to lecture anyone about my feelings.

Can you explain the collaboration process on a piece that's so personal?

There was a point in time when I knew I had the material I wanted, I spent four years writing the script. It was idiosyncratic but I knew I had a movie. I went to Atlanta and had no background or connections, I met these wonderful people. I'd invite them over to my office and I'd show them photographs, maps, films all my references. They were excited to work on something purely artistic, most of them work in advertising or industrial film. They made a huge difference and gave a lot to it. [Producer/Editor] Phil Walker in particular.

Which artists' work did you show them?

A group of photographers I would categorize as Southern surrealists. There were natural history books, Bartram's Travels, James Agee's Let Us Now Praise for Famous Men, Anselm Kiefer's landscapes. The films I showed them were Herzog's Fata Morgana, Takovsky's The Mirror, Marker's Sans Soleil, Resnais's Night and Fog.

Did you know Errol Morris hates Night and Fog?

Oh no, I took so much from that film that wound up in General Orders #9! The mix of contemporary with archival footage. Using voiceover in a personal and occasionally humorous way. I told my animator I wanted to make a film that looked like David Lynch and [Lynch's editor] Mary Sweeney had broken into Ken Burns's archives and appropriated all the Civil War outtakes.

You're taking a fairly non-traditional approach to screening the film. Can you talk about what the next stages are for getting the film seen?

We did the traditional festival route, I met [distribution consultant] Brian Newman at the Slamdance Film Festival. We're putting together a plan based on the assumption we will not get any distribution offers or only unattractive ones. It's still in the works. It's a difficult film to create a newspaper advertising for. So far our biggest fans are festival programmers (laughs). We did a test screening [hosted by indie film producer Ted Hope] to get feedback on who the audience is. We determined it's two amorphous groups: arthouse cineastes who just want to see new ideas in film and the art world and hardcore documentary filmgoers.

I'm heartened to know that latter category exists.

(Laughs) Many people think the film just belongs in a gallery setting. We feel the film needs a special event, it needs a spectacular venue like an old church. We're thinking about doing live ensemble performances and not re-produce the score but let musicians improvise.

There's also a possibility of different versions of the dvd, a retail version and a collectible dvd with all the material that didn't make it into the film. We'd also like to create a book version, so to speak.

General Orders #9 is screening at festivals around the country.

About This Story

  • Interviewer: Erin Donovan
  • Interviewee: Robert Persons
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012