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Film Critic takes the director's chair in Moving Midway

By Allan Maurer

Godfrey Cheshire's "Moving Midway," documents the hoisting of his ancestral family Plantation mansion in Knightsdale, North Carolina onto dollies for transport to a new location away from shopping malls and urban sprawl encroaching on it.

But it's much more than that.

(On the right: Midway Mansion's Plantation House)

The documentary examines Cheshire's personal Southern family drama-a venerable literary genre that not infrequently finds its way onto film-but also the way it connects to larger issues ranging from slavery and racism to the movie mythology surrounding the Antebellum Plantation South. Although the film premiered at this year's Full Frame documentary festival in Durham in April, we saw it at the Charlotte Film Festival in September with Raleigh native Cheshire present.

"Moving Midway," which the director and much-published film critic says goes next to the Woodstock Film Festival in New York, has its share of both Southern charm and Southern eccentrics. The film starts with slowly developing exposition that lets us get to know Cheshire's family and its history.

His cousin, Charlie Hinton Silver, who inherited the 1848 mansion, and began living in it with his wife Dana in 2000, has decided to move it to a more secluded lot. "Every Southern boy needs a mobile home," Silver quips when the house is finally ready for a giant yellow moving machine to tow it off the lot. Once the family mansion is hoisted onto dollies and begins its trek overland to its new location, the film even acquires a bit of suspense as the filmmaker's crew follows its progress via a helicopter in the blistering August heat.

Compelling Narrative

While Midway mansion's trek to its new location miles away supplies the most visually compelling part of the narrative, the layers of family history supply its depth. After the film we mentioned to Cheshire that it reminded us a bit of Ross McElwee's "Bright Leaves," in the way it combines a personal family drama with larger issues (tobacco and the McElwee family's involvement with the Bull Durham brand in "Bright Leaves.")

"I was afraid people might thing this was just a knock-off of McElwee," Cheshire admitted after the show at Charlotte Film Festival. No danger of that. "Moving Midway," is more drama than satire, and Cheshire never assumes the satirical personal voice so common to McElwee's work. Cheshire treats his cast of characters with great respect, even those he quite obviously disagrees with in some fundamental ways.

"Moving Midway" has its humorous moments, but they occur without Cheshire's narrative voice changing tone from his gentle, occasionally bemused, but always polite manner. Talking with him in person, it's obvious this is part of his personality. He's sharp, and curiosity always plays in his eyes, but he listens intently and never raises his voice.

Novelistic Feel

The film, like many of the best documentaries, has an almost novelistic feel. Its roots shoot back through generations of Southern earth. For the first half, it examines the effects that the Midway's Plantation mansion and myth had on the Hinton's-Cheshire's family name on his mother's side-both white and black. Like many antebellum slave owners, one of the Hinton forbearers had relations with a black slave woman, in this case his cook, fathering a son and a whole family of black "kinfolk."

 

During the course of shooting the documentary, this entire side of the family-the black Hinton's, forgotten by their white cousins for generations-emerged as a vibrant and numerous clan. Some of the most moving scenes of the film involve Cheshire's mother, who surely missed her calling as an actress, and her newly discovered cousin, the 80-odd year-old patriarch of the black Hinton clan.

The whole story has a Southern Gothic subtext, complete with ghosts and cleaning ladies who swear the spirit of Miss Mary expresses her displeasure with events at the Mansion by knocking pictures off the walls and other poltergeist-like disruptions.

In the second half, Cheshire brings his considerable sense of what movies mean in our lives to bear. He examines the whole idea of the Southern Plantation, which films largely implanted in our imaginations. From D.W. Griffith's groundbreaking, if racist, "Birth of A Nation," to "Gone with the Wind," movies inspired our concept of the Antebellum Plantation society that preceded the Civil War. Yet, when the producers of "Gone with the Wind" sent minions searching for actual Georgia plantations that might serve as an appropriate set, they discovered such mansions were actually few and far between. They eventually used a painting and a Hollywood set to represent Tara, the most famous of movie Plantation homes, despite its illusory nature.

Magical Connections

This meshes in "Moving Midway" with the thoughts of black professor Robert Hinton, one of only several coincidental but seemingly magical connections the film brought about. Cheshire, who lives in New York City, discovered Robert, who also lives in New York, through a letter Hinton wrote to the NY Times. Robert, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Southern Plantation culture, became virtually a spokesman for the black side of Midway's history.

He believes that his grandfather, Dempsey Hinton, was born a slave at Midway Plantation around 1860 He shocked Cheshire at one point by noting that he found it quite appropriate to see the original Midway Plantation land paved over and made into a shopping center. Robert's slave ancestors are still buried in a protected wooded and gnarled cemetery behind the original site, now home to a shopping center called The Shoppes at Midway Plantation.

Cheshire, who says he understands his cousin's point of view, noted after the showing that he was still reeling from the cutting of the plantations huge, 200-year-old shade trees when Robert made his statement. Seeing those trees fall, he said, moved him as much as anything involved with moving the mansion.

One of the pleasures of watching films at festivals is the questions and answers with filmmakers afterward. Cheshire and his "Moving Midway" director of photography and photographer, Jay Spain, discussed myriad technical details that went into making this film. Spain said seven cameras followed the eventual moving of the old mansion-overland, not on highways-to its new location, which took more than a month in blazing North Carolina July and August heat.

(below, Cheshire (left) and Spain answer questions after showing the film at the Charlotte Film Festival.)

It's truly a monumental journey. "It was originally supposed to take two days," Spain said. Instead, it stretched to over a month. "It totally blew our budget." He also admitted that he was lucky to be watching from a helicopter with the air cooling his face.

They also noted there was a good deal more to the ghost story that plays a charming but minor role in the film, but they didn't have room to include it all. The folks who work at the big box retailers that now occupy the original mansion site, for instance, complain of stuff leaping from shelves and other alleged evidence of hauntings. Cheshire said he plans to include a lot of additional footage in the DVD release, which will most likely follow a run in theaters for "Moving Midway" next year. Just as an aside,

Cheshire joins a distinguished group of other film critics who themselves became filmmakers, including Francois Truffaut, J.L.Godard, and Peter Bogdanovich, among others. He contributes regularly to the alternative weekly, "The Independent," in the Triangle and was a founder of the former Raleigh weekly, "The Spectator," which The Independent purchased. He also contributes to "Sight and Sound" and many another journal of film criticism. He currently lives in New York City.

Next the film goes to: Nov. 1-4: The Virginia Film Festival (Charlottesville, VA) *Nov. 7-10: The Cucalorus Film Festival (Wilmington, NC) *Dec. 1-8: The Common Ground Film Festival (Washington, DC)

On the Web: www.movingmidway.com


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