SXSW 2012: A vision of nocturnal New Orleans in ‘Tchoupitoulas’

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In their previous documentary ‘45365,’ which won the grand jury documentary prize at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, in 2009 and an Independent Spirit Award, brothers Bill and Turner Ross took a look at the rural Ohio town where they grew up. The film captured the intersection of past and future in even the smallest corners of America. With their new ‘Tchoupitoulas,’ which premiered Saturday as part of the Emerging Visions section at the SXSW film festival, they again prove themselves to be poets of place, crafting a vivid look at New Orleans as seen through the eyes of three young brothers set loose in the nighttime world.

The Ross brothers spent time in New Orleans during their youth, and after months and months of filming scenes with strippers and street musicians and assorted nightlife characters, they came to realize what they were missing.

‘What we had seen when we were kids was an inundation of the sense, a lot of color, light and sound,’ Bill Ross said in a phone interview before the festival. ‘But it became apparent it wasn’t just about those sensory things, it was about the context of being a kid in that adult world and that we needed surrogates for that experience -- their reaction to that world, that immersive experience, that very adult world, their amazement and wonder.’

(The title of the film refers to a street in New Orleans, and is pronounced ‘Chop-a-too-las.’)


One afternoon, they met the brothers who would provide the spine to their story and began shooting them that day. Though the Rosses filmed the boys multiple times, much of their footage in the movie does come from one epic night spent wandering New Orleans, just the five of them -- the three boys, with Bill and Turner filming and running sound.

In presenting the movie as taking place over one night, the Ross brothers may break what seem like some elemental rules of documentary filmmaking, but they believe it is in service of something larger.

‘I think it’s like anything we do, it’s finding moments. In all of this, we’re just trying to build a feeling and a tone,’ said Bill Ross. ‘The moments are real, but it’s in a heavily constructed context. The Ohio film was a total construction, but it’s just placing these things in a way that hopefully evokes the feeling that we’re trying to convey.’

Turner Ross said he and his brother were ‘using pieces of the truth to tell a greater truth’ and ‘trying to create these immersive experiences so that you are existing in a time and place. I think we’re more after what the film needs to be and not specifically what genre it’s going to be programmed in.’

Since their time together in New Orleans, the Ross brothers have been tackling what they describe as a real-life western on the Texas-Mexico border.

‘The impetus for us is just new experiences,’ said Bill Ross, ‘adventures and seeing new parts of the world, meeting people, having stories to tell.’

Turner added, ‘By doing this, we get to participate in a thousand other people’s lives.’


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-- Mark Olsen, reporting from Austin, Texas

Photo from ‘Tchoupitoulas.’ Credit: The South by Southwest festival.