"The past is never dead. It's not even past." - Faulkner
Belgian-born Chantal Akerman's "Sud" (aka "South") was initially a project about the great Southern writer William Faulkner. Upon hearing about the 1998 murder of James Byrd, however, Akerman rethought her project and proceeded along different lines. The result is "Sud", a semi-documentary, semi-meditative art film.
"Sud" opens with a series of still, long-held takes, Akerman plunging us into Jasper, Texas, where James Byrd was murdered by a group of white supremacists just a year before Akerman's film was shot. The three supremacists tied Byrd to the back of their truck and dragged him for three miles. Byrd remained conscious for most of the journey, until one arm was severed and he suffered a decapitation. The supremacists then disposed of Byrd's mutilated remains at a local cemetery. His body parts were found hours later by authorities, many of his limbs still strewn across the truck's path.
This horrific ordeal - the kind of macabre horrors that would give rise to Southern Gothic Literature - is revealed to us by various locals, friends and relatives of Byrd, all of whom paint a sinister picture of white-black relations in small town Texas. It's a ghostly film, the sounds of power tools, overhead planes and lawnmowers the banality of rural Texas bleeding eerily into Akerman's ghostly images. Unquestionably a horror film, the director finds the spirits of the past in every shot, culminating with her torturous reenactment of Byrd's journey, in which Akerman's camera seems to want to reach out and touch Byrd's now invisible corpse. But it's not only that Akerman hopes to capture Byrd's cries of pain, but that every long-held shot in the film hopes to tease out the countless corpses hidden within every frame. Hate remains, horror and racial tensions still resonate, and the heroes of the American Civil Right's movement still weep. Some will find the film slow, boring even, but Akerman's reaching for a kind of sacred silence, every shot weighed heavy by the invisible dead.
And one of those dead is Faulkner, of course, whose greatest novels dealt with racial tensions, human prejudices and the persistence of violence, almost always in the Deep South ("The Mansion", "Intruder in the Dust", "Go Down Moses", "Absalom, Absalom!", "Light in August" etc). Indeed, "Sud's" plot plays like something out of Faulkner's "Intruder in the Dust", and its overall aesthetic - a kind of melancholic stream of consciousness - heavily resembles some of the author's work. Maybe Akerman didn't cancel her Faulkner project. Maybe she found the vehicle for it.
8.5/10 - Worth one viewing.
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