The Island of St. Matthews Captures a Waterlogged Town’s Memories


For decades, floods arrived in Westport, Mississippi, with such regularity that destruction seemed routine. People had grown accustomed to loss — to seeing homes perennially waterlogged, their appliances and furniture drenched and ruined.

A lock and dam now regulate the water; Westport has enjoyed a generation’s worth of dryness. But the deluge had already washed its history away. Photo albums had long since fallen apart or vanished, heirlooms had spoiled and decayed. The Island of St. Matthews reflects on that absence.

Its director, Kevin Jerome Everson, found that his parents had lost everything to the floods of the Westport area, and he here returns to the community as an effort to reclaim some of its past. What emerges is a kind of commemoration.

Everson’s approach combines documentary portraiture with the more oblique methods of the avant-garde, and the result is not so much an exploration of a time and place as an evocation of them, as if the object of the film were to convey a sentiment rather than tell a story.

Everson’s background in visual art is evident in his taste for obscurity, which manifests itself in static long takes in which very little happens. This tendency occasionally grows tiresome — one shot in particular of a lock glacially opening may try the patience of even seasoned James Benning fans — but for the most part it yields a sort of hypnotic beauty.

At its best, the film does the job of the albums lost to the floods: It captures a town’s history.