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At first glance, General Orders No. 9 seems like a combination between a science fiction flick and a film on conservation. In reality, this documentary focuses on the state of Georgia, and its development from a land of beauty to an urban desert. Filmed unlike any other documentary before it, critics have raved about its unique take on a familiar concept. Although it is called a documentary, it seems to almost defy any known category. Instead of the traditional interviews, and historical voiceovers, Persons ops instead for dramatic still shots of Georgia landscape, a haunting poetic narrative, and an organic flow. This is director Robert Persons’ first film, but it seems he has started off quite strong.
One of the most striking aspects of this film is the breathtaking cinematography. It even won an award for its quality cinematography at Slamdance Festival this January. Done in stationary camera shots instead of moving film, Persons focuses first on the beauty that is present in nature, and then juxtaposes that with the cold, concrete Atlanta that has begun to take over. Atlanta suddenly changes from an average city into a nefarious force that is slowly destroying the natural beauty that once dominated the area. Persons is not demanding an end to urban life; he is simply mourning the inevitable loss of nature in the face of industrial progress.
It is this inevitable loss that inspired the title. General Orders No. 9 references the letter that General Lee penned to his troops upon his surrender to General Grant at the end of the Civil War. In a Q&A session after his film showed in Toronto, Canada, he reportedly said that “it came across as a letter of surrender with love and admiration after a great failure and screw-up, and to me that was a metaphor for the film. The film can be seen possibly as a letter of a sort of spiritual surrender.” It is this wistful surrender that gives the film its mournful undertones, but it still manages to retain some hope in the end. This is not complete destruction. It is simply remembrance for something lost, and the acceptance that the new is inevitably coming.
As a part of explaining this loss in the context of Georgian history, the poetic narrative focuses on the gradual transformation of landscapes. The phrase, “deer trail becomes Indian trail, becomes county road” is narrated as the audience sees the dissection of Georgia from a whole land into a series of jagged lines and creates a very moving scene. It is this marriage between the unconventional poetic narrative and the visuals that leaves the audience haunted by this film.
Because this film has been done unlike any other, and the approach to the subject matter is so dark, reception to this film has been mixed. Mike Ryan on hammertonail.com hailed this film as being one of the best documentaries of either Slamdance or Sundance, but at the same time, even he admits that “it might just be too mysterious and challenging” for just any audience. It comes out this June 24 to a limited release, and if you can stomach the unique qualities of the film, it can be a richly rewarding experience.
Image Courtesey of http://www.generalordersno9.com/