This weekend, “The Great Flood” — a documentary chronicling the 1927 Mississippi River Flood — made its Yale debut alongside filmmaker Bill Morrison.
Followed by a discussion with the filmmaker, Sunday’s screening marked the latest iteration in a series of public events held by the Whitney Humanities Center in conjunction with filmmaker and School of Art lecturer Thomas Allen Harris for his course, “Strategies of Visual Memoir in Art Practice.” Bringing together newly discovered archival footage with an original soundtrack by composer-guitarist Bill Frisell, Morrison’s documentary explored the historical consequences of the 1927 flood.
“I wanted you to be adrift in a river of visual information,” Morrison said. “You are on a raft through [the film].”
According to Harris, the film presents a “narrative of African-American labor,” transporting viewers through a chain of historical events that includes the swelling of the Mississippi tributaries, the dynamiting of several Louisiana levees and the Great Migration, culminating in a scene of a predominantly African-American congregation in Chicago — the filmmaker’s hometown — dancing to Frisell’s rendition of “Old Man River.”
Morrison added that he conceived the documentary as series of chapters that collectively explore the significance of the 1927 flood, which displaced 1 million people and served as a “divining rod” for later developments, such as the decline of sharecropping.
“The Great Flood presented [sharecroppers] a release from that cycle,” Morrison explained. “Local newsreel camera men were … not cognizant of the idea that they were watching a social structure collapse.”
During his conversation with film attendees, Morrison said that he was initially drawn to footage of the catastrophic Mississippi flood of 1927 and 1928, which he discovered in a South Carolina archive in the mid-2000s. The footage included aerial views of the region, taken by news channels and government agencies. Much of the 35-mm nitrate film, Morrison added, was pockmarked and partially deteriorated, damaged by excess humidity, and thus served as a physical reminder of the flood itself.
Students who attended the screening were particularly enthused about the opportunity to hear from the filmmaker himself.
“It was an intersection of ideas regarding identity representation and found objects, as well as an exciting intervention of an artistic voice,” said Annie Jones ’18, a student in Harris’ course.
Robert Newhouse ’19, another student attendee, mentioned his fascination with film theory, noting that, as an American Studies major, he was excited to find a documentary that “exists at the intersection” of his two interests.
“The Great Flood” was produced in 2013.