Kevin Jerome Everson’s The Island of St. Matthews contains a small set of recurring images at once simple and heavily symbolic. A water-skier glides along a muddy brook; two teenagers in white robes perform a baptism; beauticians in training bathe a man’s hair; dam gates manage a river’s flow; a deacon roams about a church courtyard. While the first three of these represent solid, unchanging perspectives, the last two are in constant flux, as the dam opens and closes, perspective at times switching to the operator at his station, and the deacon chats with parishioners and rings a bell. Each image references water in some way, either directly or by association, with much of the dialogue comprising personal recollections of the 1973 flood that swept over Westport, a tiny Mississippi town with which Everson has strong family connections.
Everson’s films tend to place an acute focus on the tension between memory and forgetting, as well as the way an event’s significance can transform depending on perspective. Here a deluge of water both severed links to the past—sweeping away homes, keepsakes and family photos—and confirmed that the town’s true history lies mostly in the minds of its people. As shown in previous shorts like 2007’s According To, which toyed with the meaning of archival photos through pairs of tonally opposite faux-news reports, his slyly political films have a distrust for primary sources, sensing their vulnerability to being twisted toward different aims and purposes.
Information and water have similarly fluid characters, and Everson exploits that mutability here to create a complex undercurrent for a seemingly straightforward pattern of visuals. In the footage of the water-skier, which finds the camera’s backward gaze asserting the focus on the past, there’s the tension between a relaxing pastime and the skier struggling to stay upright. With the dam there’s the dual capacity for irrigation and destruction, with the operator chatting about the floods of the past while managing the water’s flow. It’s this same water that both menaces and sustains Westport, the sort of rural community which exists outside the realm of most cinematic representations, consigned to the same moldering neglect as many impoverished small towns. It’s also key that Everson tells this story via the fragile form of 16mm footage—a material analogue for the memories being discussed here—and the water that surrounds these people functions as both a symbol for a society that’s let them down and a broader representation of the danger of forgetting, the sounds of each segment melting into each other like tidal eddies.
With his understanding of these elements, Everson is able to present bits of visual reportage that conceal their points beneath a simple sheen of verité. By simply observing, he uses his camera as a tool to shore up recollections and expand perspectives, allowing his subjects the rare opportunity to define themselves rather than be defined, allying his camera with their viewpoints. It’s a concept that’s also present in Ten Five in the Grass, the 30-minute short accompanying The Island of St. Matthews during its run at Anthology Film Archives. Profiling black rodeo performers as they train for competition, it progresses with a similar naturalistic rhythm, free from narration, observing behavior through a discrete series of legible, repetitive occurrences. Like The Island of St. Matthews, it gives us a series of images that, free from definitive context, form a new reality of their own, a small composite portrait of previously untold stories.