Tchoupitoulas is a film that adeptly shifts between fiction and documentary as it navigates the alluring idea of the night. The Ross Brothers’ film specifically concerns itself with the possibility that lingers in a single night – the surreal landscapes it provides, the fleeting intimacies that float in the air, and the beauty in the impermanence that frames every encounter. The most fascinating element of the film, though, is the focus on documenting rather than storytelling. Tchoupitoulas isn’t a piece of fiction that was put together to explore the relationship between three brothers. It, instead, is a study of the vicissitudes of one of America’s most complex and multi-faceted cities: New Orleans. The mediation between exploring the siblings at the heart of the tale, their personal connection with New Orleans, and how that link informs their bonds with each other, is carefully handled and deftly executed, imbued with a striking authenticity.
In the linear plot of the film, a night in New Orleans is being documented, which is essentially how the images are presented to us on screen. That said, these images are multifaceted, inextricably linked to a more complex and historically established romanticisation of the city, rather than an actual presentation of this one single night. The focus for the Ross Brothers, then, is to convey the possibility of what could happen in a single night in New Orleans. That is, the ‘single night’ in Tchoupitoulas is one that was shot over 9 months; over many, many, nights. It condenses and cuts the most fascinating and astounding expressions the city has to offer and the phenomenologically distinct way in which the night redefines them. Rather than appealing to a more obvious and accessible documentary style, the Ross Brothers find themselves more grounded in an approach more synonymous with cinéma vérité: moving through the city, following the brothers, filming their surroundings. There isn’t heavy narration explaining their movements, nor are there scenes that break the carefully articulated atmospheres – it constantly lends itself to elements of fiction throughout, and creates a visual narrative in a way that most documentaries would shy away from.
At the center of the film are William, Bryan and Kentrell Zanders, three brothers who have missed the last ferry. Unable to get home for the night, they find themselves exploring the French Quarter, one of the most bustling and lit-up sections of the city. We’re often reminded throughout that the brothers are quite young, and so Tchoupitoulas is, on one level at least, an exploration of the night in which they “become men” – a sentiment more strongly expressed towards the end of the film. In this focus, however, is a particular decision on the part of the directors to create an environment of disconnection and awe towards the New Orleans nightlife – we see everything through a lens of innocence and warm confusion. As becomes clear by the film’s end, the focus on the three younger brothers is essential in the conjuring of such a precise vision of New Orleans; the aura of the city then pushes pressure back onto the Zanders brothers themselves, to explore their own kinship and relationships with each other amidst this overwhelming and inspiring place.
Oddly, the film never feels disjointed – with the possibility of this being an actual single-night documentary faintly present. It’s rooted deeply in an impressionistic style of filmmaking that sees the directors create an almost dreamscape of New Orleans, where there’s a certain poetry and calm in even the roughest elements of the sprawling nightlife. In that, Tchoupitoulas boldly breaks the documentary mould in a markedly creative way. It’s happy to meander back and forth between what sort of a film it wants to be. It portrays and depicts New Orleans in with precise attention to detail, whilst continuing to maintain this dreamlike atmosphere that unveils each character through narrative methods far more in line with fictional films. Tchoupitoulas moves and progresses as a film with flagrant disregard for its categorisation. It doesn’t care about the line between being a documentary or a work of fiction. Instead, it excels at being both.