Following their eye-catching and dreamlike SXSW-winning 2009 debut, “45365,” visionary siblings Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross return with a similarly provocative fusion of documentary and dramatic elements in their New Orleans-set nocturne, “Tchoupitoulas.” Though purists might wonder where the staging stops and the found footage begins, the pic’s tangible momentum to date includes a recent Hot Docs Emerging Artist award, suggesting the brothers may be on to something, if not new, then energetically fresh in the documentary realm. Oscilloscope Laboratories plans a limited theatrical run later this year, followed by a digital release.
A five-minute-plus pre-credits sequence establishes the cramped and chaotic home life of the boisterous Zanders brothers: Kentrell, Bryan and William, the youngest of the three and the film’s occasional narrator. After hanging around the shore for awhile, they impulsively take the ferry into New Orleans proper, accompanied by the family dog, Buttercup, and are swallowed up by the hard-partying mix of locals and tourists on the bustling boulevards of the beleaguered city.
When they miss the last boat home, a return to the musical maelstrom finds them encountering bickering bums, a motormouthed oyster shucker, singing strippers, an ancient bluesman, exuberant drag queens and even a derelict, grounded ferryboat.
Filmed, per the mischievously worded presskit, over the course of nine months’ worth of night shoots, the resulting coverage is hypnotically immersive. “We like things in motion,” the filmmakers write, “running constantly with camera in hand, chasing what’s sparkling.” Buoyed by the sense of discovery in the Zanders’ performances, “Tchoupitoulas” suggests nothing less than David Gordon Green’s “George Washington” reimagined in the French Quarter by Stan Brakhage.
As to the question of faithfulness to the nonfiction form, while certain sequences with the boys appear to be staged, or at least blocked for the camera, enough of the material without them is obviously documentary in nature. In the end, talent trumps deception; the Rosses are not the first filmmakers to blur these lines, and they certainly won’t be the last.
Technical achievements are solid, with the directors’ skill for visual impressionism matched by a flood of disparate tunes that bounce from Nino Rota’s “Godfather” theme to “Iko Iko” to rap to a harmonica version of “Killing Me Softly” (exec producer Michael Gottwald said they’re currently in the process of clearing all rights).
Gottwald and fellow exec producers Dan Janvey and Josh Penn also produced “Beasts of the Southern Wild” under the banner of their Court 13 collective; Gottwald recently served as Spanish-language production coordinator on the Ross’ upcoming documentary feature set in Eagle Pass, Texas.