Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5
Original Title: Sud
France/Belgium, 1999. Audiovisuel Multimedia International Production, Carré Noir, Chemah I.S., Institut National de L’Audiovisuel, La Sept-Arte, Paradise Films, Radio Television Belge Francophone, Yleisradio. Screenplay by Chantal Akerman. Cinematography by Rémon Fromont. Produced by Xavier Carniaux. Film Editing by Claire Atherton.
Chantal Akerman was developing a project meant to look at life and culture in the American south when she learned of the murder of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, Texas, and decided to make it the central focus of this haunting documentary. In the aftermath of a horrible crime she takes her cameras to the town where it happened and captures its rhythm and mood on camera, with long, still takes of trees weighed down by the heaviness of the air, and panning shots out of car windows driving down quiet streets.
Byrd was a black man who was picked up by three white men in their car, driven outside of town and beaten to death, after which they chained him to the back of their vehicle and dragged his body through the predominantly black of part of town. Akerman leaves any commentary off screen, there’s no narration or title cards with data, the only specific information comes from a handful of interview subjects who are placed quite judiciously at key points between the quiet moments of reflection: a black woman narrates her memories of life for her community before and after the Civil Rights movement enacted change, a journalist gives a bullet point summary of the crime, a Jasper resident describes what he heard on the night of the murder, a sheriff is interviewed about life and crime in Jasper, and an expert details the white nationalism that has been growing in popularity since the sixties and is connected to crimes such as the one being discussed here. The centrepiece of the film is footage from Byrd’s memorial service, including music and testimonials from family and friends, in which speakers detail the effect that his death has had on them, their lives, and their feelings about racial tensions within their own community.
Akerman’s technique often feels like it means to break through the two-dimensional limits of the screen and give the viewer a life experience, not just a removed voyeuristic one, and the meditative images sometimes create the feeling of having actually been transported to the place where they were shot. This pays off incredibly well in the conclusion, in which the camera tracks the road upon which Byrd’s body was dragged, with circles marking where pieces of him were found along the way, dreadfully frequent at first and eventually becoming more and more spread out, until there is nothing left but the light and the road and the ominous future ahead.