MOVING MIDWAY — Documentary RetroView (2008)

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moving midway posterGodfrey Cheshire, a noted and highly acclaimed film critic, uses his cinematic smarts and sensibility to good effect in Moving Midway, his first feature documentary about the relocation of his ancestral home, an antebellum North Carolina plantation named Midway, from its original location, now rapidly being encroached upon by Raleigh’s urban sprawl, to a more secluded and peaceful spot, still on family property, several miles away. The film is a fascinating study of family, location and changing times in the South.

Midway Then And Now

The move, completely chronicled in the film, was scheduled to take two days, but actually took almost a month. We see the 1848 mansion lifted from it’s foundation, placed on a dolly and very carefully hauled over mud, turf and asphalt to its new location. Because the cargo is so precious and nobody is entirely sure that the ancient manse will survive the move, the film is a bit of a thriller.

The documentary’s central and driving event is the relocation, and it’s a grueling, painstaking and fascinating process.

But Cheshire‘s story covers more ground than the move–it‘s about the passing of time, the importance of place and family, the state of race relations past and present, and the shift from one era to the next. Actually, it’s a superbly crafted cinematic essay on the evolving South and a profound commentary on America’s culture and its roots. .

Cheshire begins the film with a history of Midway, built in 1848 and so named because it was midway between other homes occupied by his forebears, the Hinton family, who’d been granted a huge tract of land by the English crown during the 1700s. Cheshire gives us a good history lesson about the cultural and economic significance plantations. To define the importance of plantations in American cultural and economic history, and examine our commonly held perceptions about them, Cheshire uses footage from Gone With The Wind and Birth of A Nation. This is one example of how Cheshire‘s critical knowledge of cinema serves his own filmmaking.

Uprooting The Family Tree

The Hinton family tree is traced through history to the present, when Cheshire’s cousin, Charlie Silver, owns Midway and lives there with his family. It is Charlie and his wife, Dana, who develop the plan to relocate the mansion to a quieter spot, further away from the noisy Interstate that runs thousands of vehicles per day past its front door, and removed from a soon-to-be-built shopping mall.

Charlie and his siblings, and first cousin Godfrey, spent much of their youth at Midway, which was then ruled by the family matriarch, Miss Mimi, a strictly Southern lady who, they say, still haunts the house. Using family photos, home movies and filmed interviews, Cheshire introduces us to his extended family. Charlie, Aunts, cousins and others deliver rheir thoughts about the meaning of Midway and what the move signifies. They are all concerned about what Miss Mary will think and do, and what they might expect by way of her paranormal activities.

The family’s connection to the plantation land is brought home by the depth of emotion the gathered clan feels with the felling of 200-year-old trees. The magnificent oaks have to be taken down to make room for the house to be moved, but seeing them cut down and hauled away brings tears to everyone‘s eyes.

Reuniting Family With New Bonds of Friendship

In studying his family’s history, Cheshire acknowledges that his forebears’ fortune and pleasures were gained by the labor of slaves. And, like many slave owners, one of his ancestors had had relations with a black slave women–the family cook, in this case–and fathered a son, creating a black branch of the family–one that had been ignored for generations. This is very much a part of Cheshire’s story.

Being descended from slave owners and having an unrecognized branch of the family are tough subjects, but Cheshire doesn’t back away. However, unlike director Katrina Browne’s approach to her family history-based documentary, Traces of the Trade: A Story From The Deep North, Cheshire doesn’t focus primarily on the quest for reconciliation or relief from familial guilt. Nevertheless, the plan to move Midway brings the filmmaker into contact with Robert Hinton, whose grandfather, Dempsey Hinton, was born into slavery at Midway in 1860. Robert, a professor in NYU’s African Studies program, participates in Moving Midway as pivotal character. He’s the project’s historian and represents his branch of the family. The family reunion is quite moving, especially at the moment when Robert Hinton and Charlie Silver break a bottle of champagne over the mansion as one would on the bow of a ship that’s being christened. The house is equally important to both of them, and its important that both are there to mark the transition from one era to the next, from the first century and a half of the house’s existence to what will hopefully be the next 150 years.

Cheshire’s Gentle Southern Style

Moving Midway is a beautiful and poignantly personal film. In making it, Cheshire joins the list of other distinguished film critics–Truffaut, Godard, Bogdanovich, among them–who’ve refocused their efforts to making films. As filmmaker, Cheshire delivers his smart observations and sentient perceptions with a genteel style. His tone is always elegant, perhaps with a slightly Southern lilt. His voice is compelling, convincing and charming. Moving Midway is moving, indeed.

Film Details

Release date: September 12, 2008, in NY, followed by roll out to other cities
Runtime: 95 min
Country: USA
Language: English
Filming Locations: North Carolina
Distribution company: First Run Features

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