Eleven years in the making, first-time filmmaker Bob Persons has created a ghostly masterpiece with his “General Orders No. 9.” The film is a tone poem of sorts about Civil War-torn Georgia, but it’s really so much more than that. In many ways, this so called “documentary” is more a horror film of thrilling proportions— and the fact that it is so ambiguous has Rotten Tomatoes’ finest split right down the middle. All I can urge is for everyone to see it for themselves, and then weigh in with your verdicts. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of those must-own cult classics that should be re-visited each year and, even then, your own questions will haunt you. Ahhh, ghosts…
In the interview that follows, Bob Persons and I talk much about “General Orders,” it’s implications… and, of course, ghosts.
Did you have any help shooting ‘General Orders?’
I probably shot about 97% of the film myself, and then at times brought in a Steadicam- operator, and a guy with an HD cam. But for the most part I did all the shooting.
Which camera did you use?
It was the Sony DSR-570 WSL Flash 1.
No kidding. The images were very cinematic.
I invested in a very fine lens, and I think that made a big difference.
Which lens did you use?
It was a Canon Cine Style Zoom, 4.7 x 11. It was a very big lens!
There’s something so exquisite about the cinematography. It reminds me of Terrence Malick’s work.
Thank you. I had an advantage, because my subject matter was inanimate. I could take my time, shoot and then reshoot, when the weather was different. It was all very much about using natural light to record the mood I wanted.
Did you tend to favor misty, cloudy days?
Yes. I knew that on a sunny day it would all look like a golf tournament. These cameras are designed for broadcast acquisition— for news.
Did you pick up any awards?
Yeah. We got an award for cinematography at Slamdance, and another award for cinematography at the RiverRun International Film Festival.
I know that Mark Bell—Film Threat’s owner and publisher—worked at Slamdance for many years, and loves that fest. How did it make you feel when you won those awards?
(Laughs). I was shocked!
What do you do for a living?
I spent a lot of my time working on this project, and don’t really have a legitimate job or career.
Well whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. I found your film brilliant on a philosophical level. Do you like philosophy?
I like ideas.
What ideas were you grappling with when you decided to make this film?
A lot of it was inherited cultural feelings– and feelings that many people have about leaving home, or about their home-places changing when they return. Over a period of years, I did a lot of reading from an academic standpoint, about space and place, sacred space, typography, and a good deal about the history of maps. [Many] of those things helped me with some of the ideas in the film.
It’s a sad and creepy feeling when the land changes, isn’t it? It makes you begin to worry about time and space.
I’m interested in what you said in the film about the courthouse, and the implications of genealogy and land examinations. I always feel that nobody really owns land, even when they think they do.
A lot of it came alive for me when I read one of the books of the Torah. The book tells about Jerusalem being in the center of Israel, the temple being in the center of Jerusalem—and The Holy of Holies, being in the center of the temple. It’s primitive and ancient—and innate in the way people look at thing. [It’s about] people wishing there was a singularity that binds everything. So I just transposed that to the world I know. The way these counties were designed, they would put the county seat in the center of the county so that everyone in the county would have equal and fair access to places of business and legal activities.
That keeps order.
Right…It’s wishing that there were absolute order, even though when you grow up you know there’s not. When you’re a child, your mother or your father is the center of your world, and that’s something you sort of grow out of. Then you grow up and maybe realize that we all have centers in us, like everyone’s the Buddha. I have a little background in comparative religion, so all that kind of stuff played into [the film].
Have you seen Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life,’ because your film is similar?”
No, I have not.
It’s so interesting that you were making this film at the same time Malick was making ‘Tree,’ and that he took an equally long time to make his film.
In terms of the courthouse, what I was starting to see was a malevolence emitting from it…and so your doc began to feel like a horror film to me. Did that idea ever cross your mind?
I don’t think so—necessarily…but the way I worked was that I chose images that were ambiguous— and things that resonated with me on a very deep level. I think some of these dream-images and things that are archetypical can be either [good or evil].
So the film was an effort to present a lot of very deep images [and] I may not have known why I used them.
Hopefully, the film would be a living thing that would trigger the unconscious [minds] of others in ways that I could not predict.
You’re definitely crossing boundaries in much the same way as that other famous Georgian ghost-chaser— composer, Paul Mercer.
I’m definitely going to look him up.
You should. He lives in Atlanta, too— possibly right down the street. You’ll find him under, ‘The Ghosts Project…’ By the way, are you a poet, Bob?
Yes. I started writing poetry in high school.
We’re going to publish the narration of the film in the form of a small poetry chapbook.
So if people want to return to those words they can.
Your narrator is incredible.
How do you know him?
We’ve been friends since college. During the editing process, we needed someone to read the voiceover for scratch purposes. He lives two blocks away. So I said, ‘come on in and read this stuff.’ The editing process was a very creative and fluid thing. There was no script and every decision had been made. We needed a voiceover as a sculptural element, and he did that. Then we ended up liking it so much, we decided to use him for the real thing, and went into the studio and recorded properly.
Why did you choose William?
I chose him because at my wedding, he stood up at the rehearsal dinner and said, ‘I’m gonna read something that Bob emailed me a few years ago.’ And I said, ‘Oh God, it’s gonna be something terrible…’ And he read a poem that I’d written— and he read it properly.
William is a novelist…and he knows how to read, so he was perfect.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m hoping to write something else, and am already having ideas.
And maybe it won’t be a documentary?
I never considered ‘General Orders’ to be a documentary.
I never did either. Now, can you tell us what the title ‘General Orders No. 9’ means? I know people are curious.
I selected the name with a degree of misdirection, since many people would not know what it meant. I didn’t want people to come into the film with some expectation. [The title] is the name of a very famous document from Civil War history. When Robert E. Lee surrendered at the end of the war, he drafted a letter to his troops explaining to them the terms of surrender, why the war was over, and what they were to do. It’s a very beautiful piece of writing. But it’s a letter of surrender—and for me, everything in the film is a metaphor. So the title is a metaphor for the film, because the film is a letter of surrender—of a sort.
Would you say that the South has really recovered from the surrender?
It’s been over a hundred years…
I know, but it’s strange about war, isn’t it?
Yes. In every generation that comes along a few of the genes [filter] down, and then are gone—but that’s part of
That abstract landscape. That’s the general thing about war—that ambiguity—and that’s what your movie captures so beautifully.
We’re the part of the country that lost a war and many of the people who had a deep feeling about that have passed away, and things are changing. Now, many of the people who live in Georgia are not from Georgia. Time passes on, but the inheritance of it all— race, is still an issue. And when you think about race, you also think about the war.
But in the end, is any of that important? That’s just one of many questions your little movie provokes. Brilliant!
Thank you very, very much.