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Gibson’s Kudzu Vine blends sci-fi, reality

Duke graduate and professor Josh Gibson used traditional methods to film Kudzu Vine, which will premiere at Full Frame on Friday.
Duke graduate and professor Josh Gibson used traditional methods to film Kudzu Vine, which will premiere at Full Frame on Friday.

There are tremendous titular possibilities for a sci-fi film on the kudzu vine.

But Josh Gibson’s film Kudzu Vine only takes its cues and aesthetic from sci-fi of the mid-1900s. Genre-spanning as it is, Kudzu Vine, which premieres tomorrow at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, still provides a treatment of reality.

Gibson, Trinity ’95 and an instructor in the program of the Arts of the Moving Image and assistant director of the Film/Video/Digital program, has been making films since his undergraduate days at Duke. Since obtaining his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he received a Fulbright Fellowship to work on his thesis Two Rivers, Gibson has worked not only in documentary but also in fictional and experimental film and what he calls “the gray area where these three things overlap.” Kudzu Vine is his third film to show at Full Frame.

As a presence in nature, the kudzu vine has long been a fixation of Gibson’s.

“To me, kudzu-transformed landscapes are one of the archetypical visual features of the South,” Gibson said. “These structures and trees and sides of the road and rural environments that are just totally covered in this vine, they take on these strange shapes.”

The concept of the vine as both “beautiful and terrifying” colors the entirety of the film. Shot in black and white in 35 mm CinemaScope film that Gibson hand-processed in his basement, the effect is meant to be one of a “sci-fi documentary,” he said.

With the widening gap between digital and other methods of filmmaking, both the stock itself and the experience of hand-processing enabled Gibson to have an artisanal involvement in the project.

“For a long time I was sort of chasing technologies and figuring out the newest digital format, but at this moment I’m really interested in thinking about the materiality of film itself,” Gibson said. “The kind of look that can be achieved this way is much more organic—it shows the scars and the flaws, and to me it’s quite beautiful.”

Because of digital filmmaking, contemporary public showings are often no different than watching the film on DVD or otherwise, but Gibson said the unique medium of Kudzu Vine—the 35 mm CinemaScope stock—meant that its showing at Full Frame will be a rare opportunity to experience the work as it is truly intended.

The film’s strong chronological and thematic consistency extends to the score of Kudzu Vine as well. Gibson asked Anthony Kelley, an associate professor of the practice of music, to compose the film’s accompaniment, and Kelley dug into ’60s pop culture for a specific reference point.

“There’s an old television series called Dark Shadows that I used as one of the main inspirations for the theme,” Kelley said. “With the way that kudzu grows, I tried to turn up the eeriness of the sounds and use dark harmonic cues as well.”

Employing instruments like the theremin, Kelley worked to match Gibson’s use of black and white in its feeling of homage to the past. Creating a sense of historicity is something that Kelley said characterizes much of Gibson’s work.

Having lived in North Carolina since he was ten years old, Gibson also identifies himself as a Southern filmmaker. The interplay of this notion with the geographic significance of the kudzu vine emerges when the film shows Gibson letting the vine grow in his basement. Seen in time-lapse, kudzu engulfs his children’s toys and devours the space of his home. Meanwhile, as the vine occupied one half of the basement, Gibson processed film in the other.

Paralleled with Gibson’s own story and past, the plant takes on a further significance.

“One of the recurrent themes in a lot of my work has been the outsider coming in to the Southern environment and having to reestablish oneself there,” Gibson said. “Kudzu is sort of the same way: It’s this outsider from Asia that was transplanted into the American South.”

Kudzu Vine will premiere tomorrow at 4:40 p.m. in Cinema One as part of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased at the Full Frame Box Office in the Durham Armory.

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