Nine Questions with Filmmaker Robert Persons

I recently had the pleasure of briefly conversing with first-time filmmaker Robert Persons about his wonderfully rich film General Orders No. 9. Appropriately, I asked him nine questions:

1. Given the use of Bre’r Rabbit as the poster image, the mention of Uncle Remus in the film and teh Southern tradition of unreliable narrators, can the narrator of this film be trusted?

 

Robert Persons: Well, no. It’s not a documentary in the sense that it’s trying to educate or inform people about history. It’s one person’s memory and interpretation of history. It’s sometimes very opinionated. The first half of the film is fairly forthright and linear, but after that it goes off the deep end. The guys is saying that maybe he’s thinking about, his interior monologue, maybe things he’s saying to God.

 

2.  You open the film with the hands of an unseen person sifting through the artifacts of the South – things from the natural world, Indian artifacts, even artifacts from the early 20th century. What will be the artifacts of today’s South?

 

RP: Leftover cell phones, McDonald’s wrappers – they’d be the same artifacts you’d find in Canarsie. I don’t think there would be any uniquely southern artifacts. They’re the same thing everywhere.

 

3. There are references to the Civil War not only in the title but when the narrator describes the sense that something is pressing against the ground in April. Why can we never seem to outrun the legacy of that war?

 

RP: You know I’m not qualified to answer that big of a question. Number one, the line, “In April, you can feel it; something is pressing against the surface of things,” yes it’s a reference to the date of the beginning and ending of the Civil War. I also take it as April is a time that things are happening on deeper levels, and that’s part of the gothic aspect of the story. By gothic, I mean the sense that something comes up and bites you on the ass that you didn’t know about.

 

4. There’s a segment that discusses the ruins of the South, showing images of tornado destruction in different periods. With the recent storms here in Alabama, my first reaction was mostly visceral. What was your intent with that sequence?

 

RP: Tornado damage was something I had always wanted in the film. Like clearcut forests, it’s just something that has a certain mood that I wanted to be prevalent in part 2. And April is tornado season.

5. What about this film that is uniquely Southern – other than the setting? In other words, could a similar film be made about New England or the Midwest?

 

RP: I would hope so. The historical details may be different, but I believe the film connects with people because the feeling are universal. Maybe more heightened in the South and more easily delineated, but universal. Other than the fact that we ate a lot of barbeque on our shooting days, I dont know (what made it uniquely Southern.) I think that would be a question for the audience, or Oxford American.

 

6. The film seems to lament not only the rejection of a simpler life in the South, but the rejection of any knowledge of it – as evidenced in the discarded and forgotten books. What inspired those images?

 

RP: The books were simply an image I came across that had General Orders written all over it. I like squalor and putrifaction.

 

7. There’s a section toward the end of the sequence about the city where images we’ve seen before are shown again, this time rendered as pencil or chalk outlines . The narrator says, “This is where the future will happen.” Why that visual choice?

 

RP: It’s possibly a progression toward greater abstraction and a more sterile, futuristic mood, but primarily it’s to set the stage for some CG that has a similar feel.


8. As a producer of a long-gestating documentary myself, I’d love to know the story behind the 11 years cited in the press materials.

 

RP: The story is too long to recount here, but a summary would go something like this: I was collecting images and ideas long before I had committed to making a film. After a while, I started trying to organize them and make them fit together. This went on for a couple of years. I called it my project. A chance discovery of a book about cartographic progression gave me the missing piece that helped me connect the material to a feeling. I bought a camera and taught myself to use it. I wrote a script of sorts, and began shooting. That went on for a couple of years. I hired an editor/producer, and for 4-5 years more, we shot more footage and edited, while I wrote the narration. Much of this was going on simultaneously. We completed post in Los Angeles about three days before the Atlanta premier in 2009.

 

9. Finally, how would you define a Real Southern Man?

 

RP: I would side with Walker Percy, who disliked being labeled a southern novelist. If pressed, I would say Junior Samples possesses the proper attributes. On a more serious note, I would say I find it hard to be any kind of man, regardless of locale, and would not feel comfortable defining it for other people. But I think General Orders come pretty close.

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