You will be forgiven for looking for a cinematic framework to look from at artist and filmmaker Kevin Jerome Everson's tale of how flooding affected the history of a small Mississippi community. And, yes, both Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild and Spike Lee's Katrina documentary When the Levee Breaks come to mind, but that is part media laziness and part desire to find some reference point for a work that is unavoidably about recent American history and its take on those who are "left behind", but goes about it in a specifically artistic, non-linear way.

     With over 100 works to his credit and a professorship in Virginia, Mr. Everson is an artist with background in photography and sculpture whose film work of variable length and format has mostly been connected with the avant-garde, artistic and experimental cinema worlds. The Island of St. Matthews is a meditation on the memories lost and found in the flooding of the African-American community of Westport, Mississippi, where his parents come from; despite being regularly threatened by the Tombigbee river, the place was seriously damaged by a 1973 flood, here remembered by the older inhabitants, that led to the building of a dam that isolated Westport. Shooting in 16mm with locals who talk freely of the experience, intercut with water-skiing footage and a tour of the dam locks, Mr. Everson is at the same time making an almost-ethnographic record of community habits and memories no longer physically available - everything was lost in the flood - and framing it as an art project on its recording and presentation.

     While on other films that uncertainty of tone between "classical" documentary, narrative fiction and artistic license is part of what makes them intriguing, however, in The Island of St. Matthews it creates a dry, arid structure that seems to hang far too loosely, never truly coming together as a complete work. While certainly fascinating as a thought experiment on the African-American experience, it also practically demands some outside contextualizing to make sense for the viewer, and one that seems to be part of a bigger, multi-media art project outside of which it seems lost.

Director, writer and editor: Kevin Jerome Everson
Cinematography: Taka Suzuki, Lindsey Arturo  (colour)
Music: Bonnie Gordon
Costumes: Shirley Williams
Producer: Madeleine Molyneaux  (DAC Trilobite-Arts)
USA, 2013, 65 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2013 Competition screener, Lisbon, October 14th 2013


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