Kevin Jerome Everson’s The Island of St. Matthews plays like something that might be unearthed in the furthest reaches of a “community films” search criteria, on some creative commons internet archive. With its unadorned 16mm footage and lack of contemporary signifiers, it’s strange to think that the film was made in the present, or even that it was made at all. Like an unedited roll of film stock whose colors have dulled from sitting out in the humid sun for too long, this lethargic document of a waterlogged, hermetically sealed rural Mississippi community ambles along to the lulling hum of a motorboat or the distant creak of a dam door closing and opening, the only challenge to its slumber being the intermittent ringing of a church bell, itself at least six decibels below the default din of super-compressed modern sound mixes.
To the extent that there’s any directorial presence to speak of, the film operates on two impulses. The first is that of documentary reportage. The town of Westport, home to some of Everson’s family, has fallen victim to numerous catastrophic floods over the past four decades; one particular disaster from 1973 made an impact that resonates into the modern day. Preventative measures have strengthened since, but when Everson gives screen time to the townsfolk, their thoughts repeatedly circle back to what has been lost: family heirlooms, photographic archives, clothing, amenities, friends. Amidst these running biographies, Everson weaves discrete lyrical interludes such as lengthy contemplations of the Tombigbee River, studies of the mechanically operated dam, and seemingly disconnected episodes of a persevering water-skier, a group of teens performing impromptu baptisms in the water, and a bell-ringer who fulfills his duty with the same resounding force applied by the madman at the end of Bela Tarr’s Sátántangó.
“Most all of my classmates are gone, but I’m still here. I’m just proud to be here,” utters an old man from his porch late in the film, summarizing the inspiring overarching sentiment among Everson’s chosen subjects. Conditioned to expect impermanence, these people relish the few things in their life that do last: The strength of their community, for instance, a crucial motivating factor in a mutual decision to remain in this closed-off town. One scene features a group of eccentric women bonding over the memory of a phenomenal clearance sale in a nearby department store following a flood that devastated their possessions. The melancholy implication behind their laughter and reminiscing is that the women are resigning to the forfeiture of value derived from objects; why splurge on clothing and kitchenware if it’s likely to be washed away in due time anyway? The Island of St. Matthews’ finest trait is its willingness to occasionally give these unique individuals free reign to talk, think, and remember.
With its unadorned 16mm footage and lack of contemporary signifiers, it’s strange to think that the film was made in the present, or even that it was made at all.
Far less engaging, though, are the film’s forays into observational collage. Everson’s marathon river shots inhabit the same stylistic universe of James Benning’s films and Abbas Kiarostami in his tranquil Five (Dedicated to Ozu), but more often they feel like the authorless recordings of a Bolex precariously left on the deck of a canoe, shutter button involuntarily stuck down from the moisture in the air. Other non sequiturs are staged in a similarly lazy fashion, a wide-angle lens relentlessly employed for the seeming utilitarian purpose of being able to pivot spontaneously around the subject of interest without letting anything fall out of frame or focus. There’s fleeting visual interest whenever Everson plants his camera on the back of a speed boat to trace the zig-zagging of the amateur water-skier (shots that always end with his fall), but by and large the footage-taker seems oddly disinterested in the affective qualities of color, light, and composition—that is to say, in using the medium as a visual art.
What is critical for Everson is juxtaposition, and the thematic accumulation of ostensibly disparate motifs. The film’s vision of Westport is as a place of constant rebirth: Giant doors shift to reveal the mouth of the river, bells ring to inaugurate the coming days, boys are baptized by the environment, and that darned skier just keeps rising back to his feet—all of this in spite of overwhelming personal/collective/historical loss. Everson’s clearly profoundly humbled by the perseverance and good faith of the weathered faces onscreen, not to mention genuinely saddened by the erasure of photographic family history via the temperamental climate. For these reasons, it would be misguided and insensitive to disparage this more-than-noble exercise. It’s equally debatable, however, to suggest that its good-natured ambitions and unconventional form alone constitute a cinematic success.