RaMell Ross made a reputation for himself as a photographer before completing his first feature-length documentary, Hale County This Morning, This Evening. While he moved to rural Alabama to teach, he spent five years filming the lives of his community, particularly the young men Daniel Johnson and Quincy Bryant. Hale County consciously toys with spectators’ expectations about what a documentary about African-American life now should contain and what kind of stories it should tell.
Ross includes scenes in church, at basketball practice and games, and that evoke the possibility of violence from police, but doesn’t suggest that these add up to his subjects’ total experience. His characters’ lives don’t exactly build to a conventional story — major life incidents happen, but Hale County has an elliptical sensibility that distinguishes it from more narrative-oriented documentaries. Instead, Ross has made a thoroughly original film.
StudioDaily: There are not a ton of intertitles, but they’re really crucial to the tone of the film and the way certain scenes play out. At what point did you decide to use them and write them?
RaMell Ross: I think the idea of using the intertitles was a group decision. I edited the film, but I had a team. I sat down with Joslyn Barnes and talked about the images. We concluded that we may need a break from the imagery, because it may be a little overwhelming if you have a succession of images that are not necessarily grounded in narrative. Separately, I also write a lot. Luckily, the team liked my writing. So they said, “What if we put some intertitles in?” That was something we thought about, but I said, “No words in the film!” They gave me some feedback. But it happened very late in the process, probably the last four months.
I know that the film was shot over the course of five years. Did you edit as you went along, or did you wind up with 100 hours that you had to go through at the end?
Did you say 100 hours? We had 1,300 hours! It’s insane. I was editing the whole time. It’s only the bones. Something magical would happen that I knew would have staying power, and I would put it on the timeline. Then I would shoot for another two or three weeks and I’d put that on the timeline. Then I’d start to put them together. It was really heavily edited in the last six or seven months. But I was going through it the whole time, because you can’t go through 1,300 hours in a short amount of time unless you’re a millionaire and have a huge group of people.
Where did the film of the man in blackface come from?
That came from MoMA’s archive. Rajendra Roy came and reached out to me. He was at Sundance 2015 and said, “We have this unseen film called Lime Kiln Club Field Day.” It was an unreleased film starring Bert Williams. I don’t know why the production was never finished. He said, “I’d love for you to watch and see what you think.” It was magical. It was an all-black cast. It’s full of stereotypes in some sense, but the all-black cast, with a couple people in blackface, were supposed to play this middle-class black community. There’s a courting ritual going on, but it wasn’t supposed to be this hammy blackness, which was strange to watch in a silent film. There’s one scene, where Bert Williams is standing in the trees and walking out, that had a lot of visual depth and seemed to integrate well with my footage.
What inspired your use of sped-up motion?
That seems like a simple question but it’s a surprisingly deep one. I don’t know what inspired it, but I love landscape visuals, movement and looking at things for a really long period of time. The places where I did the time-lapses were all angles and things I found incredibly beautiful and [they] added a rapid time-based element to the film. Obviously, time is passing while you’re watching the film, but also time is passing within the film and there’s something more going on. Time is passing with the characters. Time lapses have been used within the history of cinema, but I very rarely have seen them used to depict everyday black experience. There’s a time lapse of guys playing video games in the trailer. To me, that’s one of my favorites because I spent so much time hanging out there, but we never see the full scope of it.
You started out as a photographer long before making this film. How long had you been making photos?
I think I took my first photo back in 2005 in an undergrad class. My last year as an undergrad, I took a photography class. I really became obsessed with it in 2006. From 2006 to 2009, I was making photos like an actual madman. Then in 2009, I moved to Alabama. I started making large-format photos with the camera I use now: the box camera with the hood.
You moved to Alabama to teach photography and coach basketball, and now you live in Providence?
I am a post-doc fellow in the Visual Art department in Brown. I have an MFA, so it’s a terminal degree. It’s a program that allows you to take baby steps into being an assistant professor. I start that job in January.
The area you depicted seems to be entirely African-American. The only white people you show are in the opening scene at church. From what I know of Providence, the demographics are very different. Do you plan to make a film there?
Ross: I’d never say never, but I’m very interested in making a film in the historic South. I have a little bit of land there, a little trailer that I stay in there. It’s a very underexposed space, especially with a modern lens. Definitely not a post-modern lens. I’m hopefully going to make a variety of things over my life, but my next film will be in Hale County again. I want to really dig into the region and culture.
There’s a tenderness to the film. Even though you’re not in front of the camera, it’s palpable that you’re a part of the community you’re filming. There are a lot of documentaries made by people who are outsiders to the communities they depict. If you make another film, do you want to continue working from the inside, so to speak?
I try not to use that insider/outsider dichotomy. I think that conversation has its own pitfalls, based on its origins. I talk about being in places that I would be in anyway and participating in lives. So there’s a relational element between you and the folks that are in the film that’s more complicated than insider/outsider. I’d hope that element of participating in someone’s life would come through the use of the camera. The camera itself can be a vehicle for the consciousness. You can use it as the eye’s gaze rather than a mechanical tool.
For me, one of the most striking scenes is the one where someone is pulled over by a police car. Then, you cut to a long shot and we see a goat standing in the road, much closer than the cars, and we never find out what happened to the person or what exactly is going on. Obviously, police brutality against African-Americans is a very real fact of life in this country, but it’s also become a trope. That scene seems deliberately designed to subvert or frustrate that trope. Is this what you were going for?
I was going for a lot of things. The film’s relationship to police or authority is to show how the police are integrated into the way people of color view the world. They’re on the periphery, always there in a fleeting glance. It’s so structural. I didn’t want to focus on the interactions. I didn’t want to make any overt statements, but I was more interested in suggesting or inferring.
How did Danny Glover, Laura Poitras and Apichatpong Weerasethakul get involved in the film?
Danny worked with Joslyn. They own Louverture Films. They’ve done many, many films. When I met Joslyn, she said, “I think Danny’s going to love this film. He’s from the South. He’s really interested in the plight of African-Americans and visuality.” Laura Poitras joined the team after she saw an edit at one of the Sundance labs. Any person would want her feedback on the creative process. Apichatpong had worked with Joslyn previously. She thought “He’s going to love this film,” so she sent him an early edit. She asked him if he’d be open to giving us feedback every time we made a new cut, and he did.
There are three composers credited on the film. Did they work together?
So, Alex Somers and Scott Alario worked together. They had a band called Parachutes and traveled and worked together. Scott is actually a pretty amazing fine-arts photographer who only makes music on the side. Alex is a full-time musician who is really talented. They made some songs for the film, and we used some earlier songs. Forest Kelley is also a fine artist and a professor. He teaches somewhere in Georgia right now. He mainly makes photographs. He simultaneously made music as well. When your friends make music, no one’s ever heard it and it’s wonderful, you wind up saying, “Please let me use your music in my film.”
In a lot of ways, Hale County strikes me as [being as] close to the avant-garde cinema as documentary. Do you feel any ties to that tradition?
Not overtly. I’m interested in making films that are radically subjective, that are almost frustratingly based on a person’s point of view in the world. In doing that, maybe it’ll come out with a storyline that’s avant-garde but a form that isn’t. I’m trying to do those things and that’s the way it comes out. I’m honored if that’s the case. Those are the films that are the most moving at times and challenge the way we view the world.
Well, I was thinking about the way you will have a 30-second out-of-focus shot of a lightbulb where most directors would try to tell a story.
Maybe this is in hindsight, but I tried to use the camera as though I was just looking. But if you’re doing that, the camera goes in and out of focus. You’re not really conscious of that because you’re gazing. Sometimes, you’re in a store or Starbucks and someone asks, “Why are you staring at me?” and you say, “Oh no, I wasn’t staring, I was just looking in your direction.” I snapped back to focus. There’s something there that transfers.
Did you use the same camera throughout?
Yes. Actually, the first scene in the film is the first one I shot. That was shot with a [Canon EOS 5D] Mark II. Immediately, I started shooting with a Mark III. So basically the same camera but not literally.
The scene in the classroom where people talk about poverty and finding joy in rural life makes explicit a lot of the subtext of the rest of the film. What was its context?
That was such a good moment in real life. It was Daniel’s psychology or sociology class. They were talking about the rural South. They were talking about what’s considered poor in an urban environment versus a rural environment. They were mulling over statistics and arguing about what’s wrong with the country. It was a real conversation about these things. The guy who’s talking spoke for 45 minutes. I took the most succinct and impassioned moments.
How do you think your background in academia has influenced your work?
I don’t really consider myself to have a background in academia, but I guess I do. I’m more interested in general understanding. You put yourself at the horizon of your own understanding of the world. When you put yourself in that space, you get that understanding with your camera. It’s helped me understand what I care about, how I interpret things and what I consider meaningful content.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening opens September 14 at IFC Center and BAM Rose Cinemas in New York City and on September 21 at Laemmle Playhouse 8 and Laemmle Monica Film Center in Los Angeles. For more playdates, check the Cinema Guild website.
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