Brian Rose Documentary, “When I Last Saw Jesse,” Revisits the 2006 Disappearance of UMKC Student Jesse Ross
Sometimes art comes from tough choices.
Take Brian Rose’s documentary, “When I Last Saw Jesse.” The film, which won best Heartland Feature Documentary at this spring’s Kansas City FilmFest International, is a haunting look at the 2006 disappearance of UMKC student Jesse Ross.
No one has heard from Jesse since he left his group during a Model UN trip to Chicago. His clothes remained in his hotel room. Gone were his wallet, some mix CDs, his cell phone and Jesse. Chicago police dragged the river, hypothesizing he fell or jumped in, but they never found a body.
Filmed in black and white, POV-style, with almost no human interplay, “When I Last Saw Jesse” is haunted by absence.
Some of that was by choice, Rose said, citing Claude Lanzman’s nine-hour Holocaust documentary “Shoah” as an influence. But he made some of his artistic choices because of budgetary and technological concerns. As he started shooting, technology started shifting away from high-definition cameras to ultra high-def.
“I was kind of concerned I was going to adopt one camera technology only to have it look out-of-date by the time the film was finished,” he said.
He chose, instead, to move forward by going back. He shot on film — black and white film — which created a more archival look.
“There’s something about shooting 60mm black and white,” he said. “It’s grainy; there’s something instantly dated about it. I wanted to give it this feel that it was out of time.”
The result is something dreamlike. The viewer retraces Jesse’s last steps as an observer, a specter. As the camera makes its way through Jesse’s home, Jesse’s father, Don, says in voiceover that for him, the nightmare comes when he wakes up and realizes Jesse is still missing.
Rose followed the case almost from the beginning. Ten years ago, he was a native Kansan attending graduate school at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He was in Chicago just a few days before Jesse. Years later, one of Rose’s work colleagues would help him contact the family when he started thinking about making a documentary.
As a film, “When I Last Saw Jesse” seems like a perfect fit for our times, as television streaming services are rushing to find true crime content for a public entranced by films such as “Making a Murderer” and podcasts such as “Serial” and “My Favorite Murder.” But there’s a downside.
“We’re kind of in a golden age of documentary filmmaking right now,” Rose said. “There’s just so much great content being made, it’s hard to break in. It’s kind of a numbers game; you just submit to a bunch of festivals and hope people see it there.”
Rose is hoping to get a distributor to pick up the film. If not, he’ll distribute it himself somewhere. The Kansas City FilmFest International win should help pique interest. Since its beginnings in 1997, the fest has grown to attract thousands of entries from all over the world. In recent years, the juried competition has bestowed more than $250,000 in awards. This year’s fest also featured the Midwest premiere of “All Creatures Here Below,” written and directed by David Dastmalchian, a Kansas City native who has been featured in “The Dark Knight” and “Ant-Man,” as well as David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” sequel series on Showtime.
“It was certainly a surprise,” Rose said of the win. “I was up against, quite frankly, a lot of films that I thought were more deserving than mine.”
Up next for Rose: a reconstruction of the long version of Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons.” Rose owns a print and a “cutting continuity,” a document made at the end of production that records everything from dialog to shot length. From the document, Rose is using animation to fill in all the holes to reconstitute what the original film looked like with the extra 50 minutes added on to it.
Others have made efforts to reconstruct “Ambersons” and circulated them for aficionados, but today’s technology creates new opportunities, he said.
“I thought I’d try to do an update of it, and once it’s done I’ll circulate it like a bootleg to various fans, and then someone else will try to better me in a few years,” he said.
He calls the “Ambersons” reconstruction a “palate cleanser” for the next project, which is a look at how America’s relationship with firearms has evolved.
“There was a historian who argued that gun ownership was uncommon until after the Civil War,” Rose said. “It was fairly controversial. There was quite a bit of backlash. It was kind of a first salvo in the weaponizing of information.”
Rose intends to use the doc to explore how racism has played a part in gun ownership, the battle between firearms activists and academics, the purpose of militias, how firearms manufacturers expanded their market to civilians, media wars and more.
He’s not sure if there are any easy answers to the gun discussion, but that’s what he found fascinating about Jesse Ross’ disappearance.
“I personally believe Jesse was not headed toward the river,” Rose said. “He was headed either to his hotel or something else that was going on. If you’re headed away from the river, that leaves only one possible answer, that there was some form of foul play. That’s the big frustration. The possible answers all have a really big flaw or hole. I wish I had a good answer.”
Above: Stills from Kansas City filmmaker Brian Rose’s award-winning documentary, “When I Last Saw Jesse” (from the artist)