Robert Persons’ General Orders No. 9, an elegiac, experimental documentary about the American South, is the type of film that demands viewers to submerge themselves in it like a pool of water—anything less, and it will seem hopelessly abstract. Forgoing anything that could be described as a narrative, it combines a pensive score and poetic voiceover with imagery of nature, maps, crumbling buildings, and small towns giving way to gray, oppressive urban landscapes.
“In April, you can still feel it—that something is pushing against the surface of things,” muses narrator William Davidson, as shots of a neglected memorial in the woods, a trickling stream, and a quiet clearing at twilight glide by. “There was a war here, a hundred years before this generation was born. A war happened here. We’re lost without a map, but well misplaced. Bring us doubt upon doubt, bless us, and break us with mystery upon mystery. The Lord loves a broken spirit. Pray that we are well broken.”
The aspiration to be “well broken” sums up the romance with the ramshackle and gloriously ruined that saturates General Orders No. 9, which doesn’t yearn for any vague idea of the Old South so much as it longs for apocalypse. Even after the film travels to the city, a “false center,” it showcases busy freeways, skyscrapers, construction machinery, carpeted lobbies, and long hallways, without ever seeming to find people. The ones finally glimpsed are primarily in archival photographs dealing with destruction, ragged buildings, and wrecked streets in the wake of the 1936 tornadoes. Looking backward to an idealized, nostalgic version of the past isn’t new or unusual—rather than that, Persons’ film seems to be about refusing an unwanted future.
General Orders No. 9 is bound to test the patience, but there are rewards to be found in its deliberate rhythms—foremost amongst them, the glorious, haunting visuals. They straddle the line between moving images and photography, and won the film an award for best cinematography at Slamdance last year. Persons, who also serves as cinematographer, spent 11 years putting together this film, his first. That can be sensed in every meditative beat.