Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The Great Flood an irresistible force

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A MESMERZING collection of film fragments taken during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 -- which covered nearly seven million hectares, displacing thousands of people -- Bill Morrison's new film hews to the same style he's developed with such films as Decasia and The Miners' Hymns, reclaiming lost and damaged nitrate film stock and turning it into poetic essays on history, permanence and decay.

Ghostly black-and-white images seem to emerge from a dimly remembered collective past, their smudges, stains and shadows creating their own abstract visual rhythm. In the case of documentary The Great Flood, the haunting effect is underscored by a lilting score by jazz guitarist Bill Frissell.

The Great Flood is organized into chapters -- "Sharecroppers," "Levees," "Evacuation" -- but it's an impressionistic work, its monumental images of mules and men loading cotton bales seamlessly giving way to the lyrical sight of a refugee playing a piano in an evacuees' camp or a woman seeming to pluck a flower while being boated to safety from her flooded home.

Beautiful, terrifying and eerily reminiscent of the bleak iconography that emerged from Hurricane Katrina, The Great Flood performs the valuable work of labour, environmental and social history, but it keeps explanatory text to a minimum, instead working on another level of consciousness altogether.

Morrison nonetheless has a narrative point in The Great Flood, which clearly traces how the natural disaster led to the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North in the 1920s.

The Great Flood ends on a somewhat ambiguous, even unsettling note, with the film jumping through time to reveal footage of musicians in the decades after the flood itself, ending with a tableau centred on a black woman sinuously dancing to unheard music. The image, while arresting, is discomfiting: The filmmaker's affection for his subjects is palpable, but so is a troubling tendency toward aestheticizing bodies in a way that makes them less human than exotic objects.

Still, The Great Flood exerts as transfixing and inexorable a force as the disaster it documents. Morrison has made a film about his nominal subject but also, most simply, about what he finds beautiful. His enchantment is contagious.

-- Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2014 A14

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